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The  Psychology 

of  Humor 

An  Integrative  Approach 

Rod  A.  Martin 

The  "Psychology  of  Humor: 
Jntegmtive  Approach 


n  Jntegrative 


Department  of  Psychology 

University  of  Western  Ontario 

London,  Ontario,  Canada  N6A  5C2 




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together  to  grow 
libraries  in  developing  countries  I  I 

Sabre  Foundation 

To  Myra,  who  keeps  me  laughing 

FOREWORD    xiii 
PREFACE    xv 


Introduction  to  the  Psychology  of  Humor     1 

The  Universality  of  Humor  and  Laughter     2 
What  Is  Humor?     5 

The  Social  Context  of  Humor     5 

Cognitive-Perceptual  Processes  in  Humor     6 

Emotional  Aspects  of  Humor     7 

Laughter  as  an  Expression  of  the  Emotion  of  Mirth     9 
The  Many  Forms  of  Humor     10 

Jokes     1 1 

Spontaneous  Conversational  Humor     12 

Unintentional  Humor     14 
Psychological  Functions  of  Humor     1 5 

Cognitive  and  Social  Functions  of  the  Positive  Emotion  of  Mirth     1 5 



Social  Communication  and  Influence     17 

Tension  Relief  and  Coping  with  Adversity     1 9 
A  Brief  History  of  Humor    20 

Etymology  of  Humor     20 

Changing  Views  of  Laughter    2 1 

Wit  versus  Humor    2  3 

Evolution  of  the  Concept  of  Sense  of  Humor    24 
Humor  and  Psychology    26 
Conclusion    29 


Theories  and  Early  Research  I:  Psychoanalytic  and 
Superiority  Theories    3 1 

Psychoanalytic  Theory     3  3 

Overview  of  the  Theory    3  3 

Empirical  Investigations     36 

Evaluation     41 
Superiority/Disparagement  Theories    43 

Overview  of  the  Theories    44 

Implications  of  Superiority/Disparagement  Theories    47 

Empirical  Investigations    49 

Evaluation     53 


Theories  and  Early  Research  II:  Arousal,  Incongruity, 
and  Reversal  Theories    57 

Arousal  Theories     57 

Overview  of  the  Theories     57 

Empirical  Investigations     59 

Evaluation    62 
Incongruity  Theories     62 

Overview  of  the  Theories     62 

Empirical  Investigations     66 

Evaluation     72 
Reversal  Theory    75 

Overview  of  the  Theory    75 
Empirical  Investigations     79 

Evaluation     80 
Conclusion     8 1 



The  Cognitive  Psychology  of  Humor    83 

Humor,  Incongruity,  and  Schemas     85 

Schemas,  Frames,  and  Scripts     85 

Applications  of  Schema  Theory  to  Humor    86 
Linguistic  Approaches  to  Humor    89 
Psychological  Approaches  to  the  Study  of  Schemas  in  Humor    92 

Semantic  Distance    92 

Semantic  Priming  Techniques     95 

Cognitive  Processes  in  Conversational  Humor:  Irony  and  Sarcasm     97 
Effects  of  Humor  on  Cognition     101 

Creativity     101 

Memory     103 

Computational  Approaches  to  Humor     105 
Humor  as  Cognitive  Play     108 
Conclusion     110 


The  Social  Psychology  of  Humor     113 

Humor  as  Social  Interaction     114 
Interpersonal  Functions  of  Humor     116 

Self-Disclosure,  Social  Probing,  and  Norm  Violation     117 

Decommitment     118 

Social  Norms  and  Control     119 

Status  and  Hierarchy  Maintenance     120 

Ingratiation     121 

Group  Identity  and  Cohesion     122 

Discourse  Management     123 

Social  Play     124 
Teasing     124 

Social  Aspects  of  Laughter     128 
Humor,  Social  Perception,  and  Interpersonal  Attraction     131 

Social  Perception     131 

Interpersonal  Attraction     132 

Humor  as  a  Desirable  Trait  in  Friendship  and  Mate  Selection     134 
Humor  and  Persuasion     136 
Humor,  Attitudes,  and  Prejudice     139 
Humor  and  Intimate  Relationships     143 
Humor  and  Gender     147 
Conclusion     150 



The  Psychobiology  of  Humor  and  Laughter     1 53 

The  Nature  of  Laughter     1 54 

Laughter  and  Emotion     155 

Acoustics  of  Laughter     156 

Laughter  Respiration  and  Phonation     159 

Facial  Expressions  of  Laughter  and  Smiling     1 60 
Autonomic  and  Visceral  Concomitants  of  Mirth     162 
Laughter  in  Nonhuman  Animals     165 

The  Play  Face     165 

Laughter  and  Smiling  in  Apes     166 

"Laughter"  in  Rats?     168 
Pathological  Laughter     169 
Laughter  and  the  Brain     171 
Tickling  as  a  Stimulus  for  Laughter     173 
The  Neural  Basis  of  Cognitive  Processes  in  Humor     176 

Humor  and  Brain  Injury     176 

EEC  Studies     179 

Brain-Imaging  Studies     181 

Evolutionary  Theories  of  Humor  and  Laughter     185 
Conclusion     188 


Personality  Approaches  to  the  Sense  of  Humor     191 

What  Is  Sense  of  Humor?     192 

Individual  Differences  in  Humor  Appreciation     195 
Theoretically-based  Content  Approaches     196 
Early  Factor  Analytic  Studies     197 
Ruch's  Factor- Analytic  Investigations     200 
Personality  Correlates  of  the  3  WD  Dimensions     202 

Self-Report  Measures  of  Sense  of  Humor  Dimensions     205 
Svebak's  Sense  of  Humor  Questionnaire  (SHQ)     206 
The  Situational  Humor  Response  Questionnaire  (SHRQ)     208 
The  Coping  Humor  Scale  (CHS)     210 
The  Humor  Styles  Questionnaire  (HSQ)     210 
The  State-Trait  Cheerfulness  Inventory  (STCI)     214 

Sense  of  Humor  as  an  Ability    216 

Sense  of  Humor  as  Styles  of  Humorous  Conduct     219 

How  Many  Different  Senses  of  Humor  Exist?     221 


Personality  Characteristics  of  Professional  Humorists     223 
Conclusion     225 


The  Developmental  Psychology  of  Humor    229 

Smiling  and  Laughter  in  Infancy  and  Early  Childhood     230 

Humor  and  Play     234 

Humor  and  Cognitive  Development     238 

McGhee's  Four-Stage  Model  of  Humor  Development    239 

The  Role  of  Incongruity  and  Resolution  in  Children's  Humor     241 

Humor  and  Cognitive  Mastery    243 

Cognitive  Development  of  Irony  and  Sarcasm     244 
Humor  as  Emotional  Coping    247 
Interpersonal  Aspects  of  Humor  in  Children     249 

Social  Influences  on  Humor  Appreciation  and  Laughter     250 

Teasing  Among  Children     250 
Individual  Differences  in  Children's  Sense  of  Humor     252 

Genetic  Factors  in  Sense  of  Humor     253 

Family  Environment  Factors  in  Sense  of  Humor  Development    256 

Personality  and  Behavioral  Correlates  of  Children's  Sense  of  Humor     259 
Humor  and  Aging    263 
Conclusion     266 


Humor  and  Mental  Health    269 

Humor  and  Emotional  Well-Being    270 

Experimental  Investigations  of  Humor  and  Emotions     270 
Correlational  Studies  of  Trait  Humor  and  Emotional  Well-Being     273 
Distinguishing  Potentially  Healthy  and  Unhealthy  Humor  Styles     276 

Humor,  Stress,  and  Coping    282 

Experimental  Investigations  of  Humor  as  a  Stress  Moderator     283 

Correlational  Studies  of  Sense  of  Humor  and  Coping  Styles     285 

Humor  in  Coping  with  Specific  Life  Stressors     287 

Sense  of  Humor  as  a  Stress  Moderator    291 

Process  Approaches  to  Investigating  Humor  in  Coping    295 

Interpersonal  Aspects  of  Humor  in  Mental  Health  297 
Humor  as  a  Facilitator  of  Healthy  Relationships  299 
Interpersonal  Aspects  of  Coping  Humor  303 

Conclusion     305 


CHAPTER    10 

Humor  and  Physical  Health    309 

Popular  Beliefs  About  Humor  and  Health     310 
How  Might  Humor  Affect  Health?     3 1 3 
Humor  and  Immunity     317 

Experimental  Investigations     317 

Correlational  Studies     321 
Humor  and  Pain     323 

Humor,  Blood  Pressure,  and  Heart  Disease     326 
Humor  and  Illness  Symptoms     327 
Humor  and  Longevity     329 
Conclusion     331 


Applications  of  Humor  in  Psychotherapy,  Education, 
and  the  Workplace    335 

Humor  in  Psychotherapy  and  Counseling     336 

Humor-Based  Therapies     337 

Humor  as  a  Specific  Therapeutic  Technique     339 

Humor  as  a  Therapist  Skill     341 

Research  on  Humor  in  the  Therapeutic  Process     343 

Risks  of  Humor  in  Therapy     346 

Conclusion  349 
Humor  in  Education  349 

Descriptive  Studies  of  Teachers'  Use  of  Humor  in  the  Classroom     351 

Teachers'  Use  of  Humor  and  the  Classroom  Environment     352 

Teachers'  Use  of  Humor  and  Students'  Learning     354 

Effects  of  Humor  in  Tests  and  Exams     356 

Effects  of  Humor  in  Textbooks     357 

Caveats  in  the  Use  of  Humor  in  Education     358 

Conclusion  359 
Humor  in  the  Workplace  360 

Social  Functions  of  Humor  in  the  Workplace     361 

Humor  as  a  Reflection  of  Organizational  Culture     365 

Humor  in  Negotiation  and  Mediation     366 

Humor  in  Leadership     367 

Conclusion  368 
General  Discussion  369 



Lnderstanding  the  nature  of  humor  is  a 
problem  for  psychology.  Humor,  comedy,  and  laughter  are  important  and  engaging 
aspects  of  behavior.  Consequently,  they  have  received  attention  from  many  perspec- 
tives and  approaches.  The  amount  and  diversity  of  relevant  information  should  have 
made  this  book  impossible  to  write.  The  material  for  a  work  on  humor  is  widely  scat- 
tered, both  in  space  and  time.  Even  if  the  focus  is  on  psychology,  all  the  other  areas 
touching  humor  need  to  be  examined.  Not  only  empirical  research,  but  rational  and 
literary  thought  must  be  included.  Rod  Martin  has  not  only  brought  this  material 
together  but  turned  it  into  an  easy  read.  To  borrow  a  simile  from  James  Agee,  it  must 
have  been  like  "putting  socks  on  an  octopus." 

The  Psychology  of  Humor:  An  Integrative  Approach  can  stand  at  the  head  of  a  line 
of  books  that  have  presented  a  picture  of  this  universal  trait.  Any  philosopher  who 
wrote  on  human  nature  discussed  laughter  and,  at  least  by  implication,  humor. 
Bergson  and  Freud  at  the  beginning  of  the  last  century  focused  on  laughter  and  wit 
to  present  testable,  if  not  tested,  hypotheses.  Psychologists  in  the  middle  of  the 
century  included  humor  as  part  of  their  assessments  of  personality.  Chapman  and 
Foot,  and  Goldstein  and  McGhee  (as  well  as  McGhee  and  Goldstein)  gave  humor 
scholars  a  platform  in  the  1970s  and  1980s.  Separate  chapters  in  these  various  books 
permitted  presentation  of  data  and  ideas,  but  little  interaction  or  direct  communica- 
tion. Even  now,  with  a  yearly  conference  and  a  quarterly  journal,  disagreement  is  more 
typical  than  exchange  and  cooperation.  Here,  then,  with  a  single  voice  Martin  surveys 



and  integrates  a  disparate  field.  After  100  years,  we  have  some  answers  to  the  ques- 
tions the  theories  have  raised.  It  is  possible  to  evaluate  incongruity/surprise,  aggres- 
sion/superiority, tension/release,  and  so  on.  Their  points  of  overlap  and  agreement  as 
well  as  their  conflicts  can  be  examined  and  a  decision  advanced  as  to  what  predictions 
are  most  accurate. 

As  the  past  century  has  evolved,  humor  has  broadened  and  increased  in  scope. 
Newspapers,  magazines,  radio,  television,  and  the  Internet  supply  more  accessible — 
and  to  a  degree  less  critical — outlets  for  humor.  One  might  complain  that  increased 
quantity  has  led  to  decreased  quality.  On  the  other  hand,  quantity  also  leads  to  more 
variability,  so  the  best  is  better  yet!  Humor  has  become  a  more  significant  reflection 
of  society  and  humanity  as  a  whole.  In  these  pages,  the  current  state  of  our  knowl- 
edge is  assessed.  The  direction  of  future  inquiry  and  understanding  can  be  seen. 

Life,  it  has  been  said,  would  be  meaningless  without  art.  Perhaps  it  would  be  too 
meaningful  without  humor.  Here,  then,  is  a  thorough  description  and  evaluation  of 
the  good,  the  bad,  and  the  playful  behavior  that  is  a  common  and  significant  part  of 

Peter  Derks 

Professor  Emeritus 

College  of  William  and  Mary 


lumor  is  a  ubiquitous  human  activity  that 
occurs  in  all  types  of  social  interaction.  Most  of  us  laugh  at  something  funny  many 
times  during  the  course  of  a  typical  day.  Although  it  is  a  form  of  play,  humor  serves 
a  number  of  "serious"  social,  cognitive,  and  emotional  functions.  Fascinating  ques- 
tions about  humor  and  laughter  touch  on  every  area  of  psychology.  Surprisingly, 
however,  despite  its  obvious  importance  in  human  behavior,  humor  and  related  topics 
like  laughter,  irony,  and  mirth  are  hardly  ever  mentioned  in  psychology  texts  and  other 
scholarly  books.  Although  there  is  a  sizable  and  continually  expanding  research  liter- 
ature on  this  subject,  most  psychologists  seem  to  have  little  systematic  knowledge 
of  it. 

The  main  purpose  of  this  book,  then,  is  to  provide  an  integrative  review  of  theory 
and  research  findings  in  all  areas  of  the  psychology  of  humor,  with  one  chapter 
devoted  to  each  branch  of  the  discipline  (cognitive,  social,  biologic,  personality,  devel- 
opmental, clinical,  etc.).  The  book  is  designed  in  part  to  be  used  as  a  textbook  for 
senior  undergraduate-  or  graduate-level  courses  in  the  psychology  of  humor. 
Although  such  courses  are  not  currently  part  of  the  curriculum  in  most  psychology 
departments,  it  is  my  hope  that  the  availability  of  this  book  will  encourage  instruc- 
tors to  consider  offering  one.  This  course,  like  the  book,  would  typically  be  organ- 
ized around  the  different  areas  of  psychology,  with  a  week  or  two  spent  on  each 
chapter.  In  my  experience,  this  is  always  a  very  popular  course,  and  it  serves  as  an 
excellent  vehicle  for  demonstrating  to  students  how  a  very  intriguing,  enjoyable,  and 


personally  relevant  aspect  of  behavior  can  be  approached  from  the  perspective  of  each 
branch  of  psychology,  providing  a  comprehensive  and  compelling  understanding  of 
the  topic. 

In  addition  to  its  purpose  as  a  course  textbook,  I  have  also  attempted  to  make  this 
book  useful  as  a  research  handbook  for  students  as  well  as  more  seasoned  academics 
who  might  be  interested  in  conducting  their  own  research  in  this  topic  area.  In  each 
chapter,  therefore,  I  point  out  interesting  questions  that  remain  to  be  answered,  novel 
hypotheses  arising  from  recent  developments  in  various  areas  of  psychology,  and 
promising  research  methods  for  addressing  these  questions.  Researchers  will  no  doubt 
see  other  ways  that  concepts  from  their  own  field  of  investigation  could  be  applied  to 
an  understanding  of  humor.  I  also  include  an  extensive  bibliography  for  those  who 
wish  to  examine  the  primary  sources  more  closely.  It  is  my  hope  that  this  book  will 
trigger  many  interesting  new  ideas  and  stimulate  readers  to  branch  into  this  research 

In  addition  to  students  and  academic  psychologists,  I  hope  this  book  will  be  ben- 
eficial to  scholars  from  other  disciplines  who  are  interested  in  learning  about  how 
humor  has  been  investigated  by  psychologists.  At  various  points  in  the  book,  I  touch 
on  some  of  the  contributions  of  several  other  disciplines,  such  as  anthropology, 
biology,  computer  science,  linguistics,  and  sociology,  which  augment  the  research  of 
psychologists.  Finally,  this  book  is  also  intended  for  practitioners  in  health  care  (e.g., 
physicians,  nurses,  occupational  and  physical  therapists),  counseling,  social  work,  edu- 
cation, and  business,  who  may  be  interested  in  potential  applications  of  humor  in  their 
respective  fields.  I  therefore  do  not  assume  that  readers  necessarily  have  a  strong  back- 
ground in  psychology.  For  those  who  may  be  less  familiar  with  the  discipline,  I  try  to 
provide  enough  information  to  make  the  theories,  methods,  and  findings  reasonably 
accessible.  Thus,  I  am  attempting  to  reach  a  fairly  broad  audience  with  this  book.  I 
ask  the  reader's  indulgence  if  I  seem  to  be  "spreading  myself  too  thin." 


iis  book  could  not  have  been  written 
without  the  help  of  many  people.  My  interest  in  the  academic  study  of  humor  was 
first  kindled  by  my  graduate  research  adviser  at  the  University  of  Waterloo,  Herb  Lef- 
court,  whose  intellectual  curiosity  and  enthusiasm  for  scholarship  have  provided  an 
inspiration  and  role  model  for  me  throughout  my  career.  Over  the  years,  I  have  honed 
my  thinking  about  humor  in  many  hours  of  lively  discussion  with  several  colleagues, 
including  Nick  Kuiper  at  the  University  of  Western  Ontario,  with  whom  I  have  col- 
laborated on  a  number  of  projects,  and  my  good  friends  and  fellow  members  of  the 
International  Society  for  Humor  Studies,  Peter  Derks,  Willi  Ruch,  and  Sven  Svebak. 
I  am  also  grateful  to  a  number  of  other  research  collaborators,  including  Eric  Bressler, 
Jay  Brinker,  Lome  Campbell,  Guohai  Chen,  Kathy  Dance,  David  Dozois,  Paul 
Frewen,  Shahe  Kazarian,  Paavo  Kerkkanen,  Joan  Olinger,  Tony  Vernon,  and  Lynne 
Zarbatany.  I  have  also  learned  a  great  deal  from  my  students,  whose  inquisitiveness 
and  fresh  insights  have  provided  me  with  ongoing  inspiration.  Those  who  have 
worked  with  me  on  the  topic  of  humor  include  James  Dobbin,  Patricia  Doris,  Gwen 
Dutrizac,  Jeanette  Gray,  Tim  Hillson,  Melissa  Johari,  Jennie  Ward,  Kelly  Weir,  and 
Jeremy  Yip. 

I  also  wish  to  thank  the  following  individuals  who  read  drafts  of  various  sections 
of  this  book  and  provided  me  with  helpful  feedback  and  suggestions:  Albert  Katz, 
Martin  Kavaliers,  Nick  Kuiper,  Paul  Lewis,  Jim  Olson,  and  Willi  Ruch.  I  am  espe- 
cially indebted  to  Peter  Derks,  who  read  and  responded  to  every  chapter,  and  whose 



unfailing  encouragement  and  enthusiasm  for  this  project  helped  keep  me  going. 
Needless  to  say,  however,  I  take  full  responsibility  for  all  errors  and  omissions.  I  am 
also  grateful  for  the  support  and  encouragement  of  my  good  friends,  Ed  Beharry,  Ray 
Cardey,  George  Vanderschaaf,  and  John  Zinkann.  I  am  blessed  by  a  warm  and  caring 
family,  and  am  buoyed  by  the  love  of  my  daughters  Rachelle  (and  her  husband  Andrew 
and  their  children  Caroline  and  Christina)  and  Julia  (and  her  husband  Ben),  and  my 
son  Ben.  Finally,  and  most  importantly,  I  cannot  fully  express  my  gratitude  to  my  wife, 
Myra,  whose  enduring  love  and  cheerful  sense  of  humor  have  sustained  me,  and  to 
whom  I  dedicate  this  book. 

CHAPTER       1 


e  all  know  what  it  is  like  to  experience 
humor.  Someone  tells  a  joke,  relates  an  amusing  personal  anecdote,  makes  a  witty 
comment  or  an  inadvertent  slip  of  the  tongue,  and  we  are  suddenly  struck  by  how 
funny  it  is.  Depending  on  how  amusing  we  perceive  the  stimulus  to  be,  it  might  cause 
us  to  smile,  to  chuckle,  or  to  burst  out  in  peals  of  convulsive  laughter.  Our  response 
is  accompanied  by  pleasant  feelings  of  emotional  well-being  and  mirth.  Most  of  us 
have  this  sort  of  experience  many  times  during  the  course  of  a  typical  day. 

Because  humor  is  so  familiar  and  is  such  an  enjoyable  and  playful  activity,  many 
people  might  think  they  already  understand  it  and  do  not  need  research  in  psychol- 
ogy to  explain  it.  However,  the  empirical  study  of  humor  holds  many  interesting  sur- 
prises. Although  it  is  essentially  a  type  of  mental  play  involving  a  lighthearted, 
nonserious  attitude  toward  ideas  and  events,  humor  serves  a  number  of  "serious" 
social,  emotional,  and  cognitive  functions,  making  it  a  fascinating  and  rewarding  topic 
of  scientific  investigation. 

The  topic  of  humor  raises  a  host  of  intriguing  questions  of  relevance  to  all  areas 
of  psychology.  What  are  the  mental  processes  involved  in  "getting  a  joke"  or  per- 
ceiving something  to  be  funny?  How  is  humor  processed  in  the  brain,  and  what  effect 
does  it  have  on  our  bodies?  What  is  laughter  and  why  do  we  laugh  in  response  to 
humorous  things?  Why  is  humor  so  enjoyable?  What  role  does  humor  play  in  our 
interactions  with  other  people?  What  is  a  sense  of  humor  and  how  does  it  develop  in 
children?  Is  a  good  sense  of  humor  beneficial  for  mental  and  physical  health? 

1      •     INTRODUCTION    TO    THE    PSYCHOLOGY    OF    HUMOR 

As  is  evident  from  these  and  other  related  questions,  humor  touches  on  all 
branches  of  academic  psychology  (R.  A.  Martin,  2000).  Researchers  in  the  area  of 
cognitive  psychology  may  be  interested  in  the  mental  processes  involved  in  the  per- 
ception, comprehension,  appreciation,  and  creation  of  humor.  The  interpersonal 
functions  of  humor  in  dyadic  interactions  and  group  dynamics  are  of  relevance  to 
social  psychology.  Developmental  psychologists  may  focus  on  the  way  humor  and 
laughter  develop  from  infancy  into  childhood  and  throughout  the  lifespan.  Personal- 
ity researchers  might  examine  individual  differences  in  sense  of  humor  and  their  rela- 
tion to  other  traits  and  behaviors.  Biological  psychology  can  shed  light  on  the 
physiological  bases  of  laughter  and  the  brain  regions  underlying  the  comprehension 
and  appreciation  of  humor.  The  role  of  humor  in  mental  and  physical  health,  as  well 
as  its  potential  applications  in  psychotherapy,  education,  and  the  workplace,  are  of 
interest  to  applied  branches  of  psychology  such  as  clinical,  health,  educational,  and 
industrial-organizational  psychology.  Thus,  researchers  from  every  branch  of  the  dis- 
cipline have  potentially  interesting  contributions  to  make  to  the  study  of  humor. 
Indeed,  a  complete  understanding  of  the  psychology  of  humor  requires  an  integra- 
tion of  findings  from  all  these  areas. 

Despite  the  obvious  importance  of  humor  in  many  different  areas  of  human  expe- 
rience and  its  relevance  to  all  branches  of  psychology,  mainstream  psychology  has  paid 
surprisingly  little  attention  to  this  subject  up  to  now.  Humor  research  typically 
receives  scant  mention,  if  any  at  all,  in  undergraduate  psychology  texts  or  scholarly 
books.  Nonetheless,  there  has  been  a  steady  accumulation  of  research  on  the  topic 
over  the  years,  producing  a  sizable  body  of  knowledge.  The  overall  aim  of  this 
book  is  therefore  to  introduce  students  and  academics  in  psychology,  as  well  as 
scholars  and  professional  practitioners  from  other  fields,  to  the  existing  research  lit- 
erature, and  to  point  out  interesting  avenues  for  farther  study  in  this  fascinating  topic 

In  this  chapter,  I  will  begin  by  summarizing  evidence  of  the  universality  and  evo- 
lutionary origins  of  humor  and  laughter  in  humans.  I  will  then  explore  the  question 
of  what  humor  is,  discussing  four  essential  elements  of  the  humor  process  and  the  rel- 
evance of  each  to  an  integrative  psychology  of  humor.  This  will  be  followed  by  a 
survey  of  the  many  different  forms  of  humor  that  we  encounter  during  our  daily  lives, 
and  an  examination  of  the  psychological  functions  of  humor  and  laughter.  Next,  I  will 
summarize  the  history  of  the  concept  of  humor,  examining  the  way  popular  concep- 
tions and  assumptions  about  humor  and  laughter  have  changed  dramatically  over  the 
centuries.  Finally,  I  will  discuss  the  psychological  approach  to  humor  and  then  present 
an  overview  of  the  rest  of  this  book. 


Humor  and  laughter  are  a  universal  aspect  of  human  experience,  occurring  in  all 
cultures  and  virtually  all  individuals  throughout  the  world  (Apte,  1985;  Lefcourt, 
2001).  Laughter  is  a  distinctive,  stereotyped  pattern  of  vocalization  that  is  easily  rec- 


ognized  and  quite  unmistakable  (Provine  and  Yong,  1991).  Although  different  cul- 
tures have  their  own  norms  concerning  the  suitable  subject  matter  of  humor  and  the 
types  of  situations  in  which  laughter  is  considered  appropriate,  the  sounds  of  laugh- 
ter are  indistinguishable  from  one  culture  to  another.  Developmentally,  laughter  is 
one  of  the  first  social  vocalizations  (after  crying)  emitted  by  human  infants  (McGhee, 
1979).  Infants  begin  to  laugh  in  response  to  the  actions  of  other  people  at  about  four 
months  of  age,  and  cases  of  gelastic  (i.e.,  laughter-producing)  epilepsy  in  newborns 
indicate  that  the  brain  mechanisms  for  laughter  are  already  present  at  birth  (Sher  and 
Brown,  1976).  The  innateness  of  laughter  is  further  demonstrated  by  the  fact  that 
even  children  born  deaf  and  blind  have  been  reported  to  laugh  appropriately  without 
ever  having  perceived  the  laughter  of  others  (Provine,  2000).  Indeed,  there  is  evidence 
of  specialized  brain  circuits  for  humor  and  laughter  in  humans,  which  researchers  are 
beginning  to  identify  by  means  of  neural  imaging  studies.  Thus,  being  able  to  enjoy 
humor  and  express  it  through  laughter  seems  to  be  an  essential  part  of  what  it  means 
to  be  human. 

Interestingly,  though,  humans  are  not  the  only  animal  that  laughs.  Primatologists 
have  studied  in  some  detail  a  form  of  laughter  emitted  by  young  chimpanzees,  which 
was  first  described  by  Charles  Darwin  (1872).  Similar  types  of  laughter  have  also  been 
observed  in  other  apes,  including  bonobos,  orangutans,  and  gorillas  (Preuschoft  and 
van  Hooff,  1997;  van  Hooff  and  Preuschoft,  2003).  Ape  laughter  is  described  as  a  stac- 
cato, throaty,  panting  vocalization  that  accompanies  the  relaxed  open-mouth  or  "play 
face,"  and  is  emitted  during  playful  rough-and-tumble  social  activities  such  as 
wrestling,  tickling,  and  chasing  games  (see  Figure  1).  Although  it  sounds  somewhat 
different  from  human  laughter,  it  is  quite  recognizable  as  such,  occurring  in  similar 
social  contexts  as  laughter  in  human  infants  and  young  children.  Indeed,  there  is  good 
reason  to  believe  that  human  and  chimpanzee  laughter  have  the  same  evolutionary 
origins  and  many  of  the  same  functions. 

In  addition  to  laughter,  there  is  evidence  that  apes  may  even  have  the  capacity  for 
a  rudimentary  sense  of  humor.  Chimpanzees  and  gorillas  that  have  been  taught  to 
communicate  by  means  of  sign  language  have  been  observed  to  use  language  in  playful 
ways  that  are  very  reminiscent  of  humor,  such  as  punning,  humorous  insults,  and 
incongruous  word  use  (Gamble,  2001).  Interestingly,  these  humorous  uses  of  linguis- 
tic signs  are  sometimes  also  accompanied  by  laughter  and  the  play  face,  indicating  a 
close  link  between  humor,  play,  and  laughter  even  in  apes. 

All  of  these  lines  of  evidence  suggest  that  humor  and  laughter  in  humans  are  a 
product  of  natural  selection  (Gervais  and  Wilson,  2005).  Laughter  appears  to  have 
originated  in  social  play  and  to  be  derived  from  primate  play  signals.  It  is  viewed  by 
evolutionary  researchers  as  part  of  the  nonverbal  "gesture-call"  system,  which  has  a 
long  evolutionary  history,  predating  the  development  of  language  (Burling,  1993). 
With  the  evolution  of  greater  intellectual  and  linguistic  abilities,  humans  have  adapted 
the  laughter-generating  play  activities  of  their  primate  ancestors  to  the  mental  play 
with  words  and  ideas  that  we  now  call  humor  (Caron,  2002).  Thus,  although  they 
usually  do  not  chase  and  tickle  one  another  in  rough-and-tumble  play,  human  adults, 
by  means  of  humor,  continue  to  engage  in  frequent  social  play.  These  evolutionary 


FIGURE    1     The  chimpanzee  play  face.  The  characteristic  "play  face"  (open  mouth,  upper 
teeth  covered,  lower  teeth  exposed)  accompanies  panting  laughter.  ©  Getty  Images/PhotoDisc 

origins  of  humor  and  laughter  suggest  that  they  likely  have  important  social- 
emotional  functions  that  have  contributed  to  our  survival  as  a  species. 

Although  humor  has  a  biological  basis  rooted  in  our  genes,  it  is  also  evident  that 
cultural  norms  and  learning  play  an  important  role  in  determining  how  it  is  used  in 
social  interactions,  and  what  topics  are  considered  appropriate  for  it.  In  addition, 
although  all  forms  of  humor  seem  to  originate  in  a  basic  play  structure,  the  complexity 
of  human  language  and  imagination  enables  us  to  create  humor  in  a  seemingly  endless 
variety  of  forms.  As  human  language,  culture,  and  technology  have  evolved,  we  have 
developed  new  methods  and  styles  of  communicating  it,  from  spontaneous  interper- 
sonal joking  and  banter  to  oral  storytelling  traditions,  comedic  drama  and  humorous 
literature,  comedy  films,  radio  and  television  shows,  and  jokes  and  cartoons  dissemi- 
nated over  the  Internet. 

Besides  being  a  form  of  playful  fun  and  entertainment,  humor  has  taken  on  a  wide 
range  of  social  functions  over  the  course  of  human  biological  and  cultural  evolution. 
Many  of  these  interpersonal  functions  are  contradictory  and  paradoxical.  Humor  can 


be  a  method  of  enhancing  social  cohesion  within  an  in-group,  but  it  can  also  be  a  way 
of  excluding  individuals  from  an  out-group.  It  can  be  a  means  of  reducing  but  also 
reinforcing  status  differences  among  people,  expressing  agreement  and  sociability  but 
also  disagreement  and  aggression,  facilitating  cooperation  as  well  as  resistance,  and 
strengthening  solidarity  and  connectedness  or  undermining  power  and  status.  Thus, 
while  originating  in  social  play,  humor  has  evolved  in  humans  as  a  universal  mode  of 
communication  and  social  influence  with  a  variety  of  functions. 


The  Oxford  English  Dictionary  defines  humor  as  "that  quality  of  action,  speech,  or 
writing  which  excites  amusement;  oddity,  jocularity,  facetiousness,  comicality,  fun."  It 
goes  on  to  say  that  humor  is  also  "the  faculty  of  perceiving  what  is  ludicrous  or 
amusing,  or  of  expressing  it  in  speech,  writing,  or  other  composition;  jocose  imagi- 
nation or  treatment  of  a  subject"  (Simpson  and  Weiner,  1989,  p.  486).  It  is  evident 
from  these  definitions  that  humor  is  a  broad  term  that  refers  to  anything  that  people 
say  or  do  that  is  perceived  as  funny  and  tends  to  make  others  laugh,  as  well  as  the 
mental  processes  that  go  into  both  creating  and  perceiving  such  an  amusing  stimu- 
lus, and  also  the  affective  response  involved  in  the  enjoyment  of  it. 

From  a  psychological  perspective,  the  humor  process  can  be  divided  into  four 
essential  components:  (1)  a  social  context,  (2)  a  cognitive-perceptual  process,  (3)  an 
emotional  response,  and  (4)  the  vocal-behavioral  expression  of  laughter. 

The  Social  Context  of  Humor 

Humor  is  fundamentally  a  social  phenomenon.  We  laugh  and  joke  much  more 
frequently  when  we  are  with  other  people  than  when  we  are  by  ourselves  (R.  A.  Martin 
and  Kuiper,  1999;  Provine  and  Fischer,  1989).  People  do  occasionally  laugh  when  they 
are  alone,  such  as  while  watching  a  comedy  show  on  television,  reading  a  humorous 
book,  or  remembering  a  funny  personal  experience.  However,  these  instances  of 
laughter  can  usually  be  seen  as  "pseudo-social"  in  nature,  because  one  is  still  respond- 
ing to  the  characters  in  the  television  program  or  the  author  of  the  book,  or  reliving 
in  memory  an  event  that  involved  other  people. 

Humor  can  (and  frequently  does)  occur  in  virtually  any  social  situation.  It  can 
occur  between  spouses  who  have  lived  together  for  fifty  years  or  between  strangers 
waiting  at  a  bus  stop.  It  can  take  place  in  the  conversation  of  a  group  of  close  friends 
casually  sitting  around  a  table  in  a  coffee  shop,  or  in  the  interactions  of  a  group  of 
business  people  participating  in  formal  negotiations.  It  can  be  used  by  public  speak- 
ers, such  as  politicians  or  religious  leaders,  addressing  large  audiences  either  in  person 
or  via  the  media. 

The  social  context  of  humor  is  one  of  play.  Indeed,  humor  is  essentially  a  way  for 
people  to  interact  in  a  playful  manner.  As  I  have  already  noted,  research  on  laughter 
in  chimpanzees  and  other  apes  indicates  that  laughter  originates  in  social  play  (van 

1      •     INTRODUCTION    TO    THE     PSYCHOLOGY    OF    HUMOR 

Hooff  and  Preuschoft,  2003).  In  humans,  our  ability  to  create  humor  to  amuse  one 
another  and  evoke  laughter  appears  to  have  evolved  as  a  means  of  providing  us  with 
extended  opportunities  for  play.  Play  seems  to  serve  important  social,  emotional,  and 
cognitive  functions  (Bateson,  2005).  Indeed,  all  mammals  engage  in  play  as  juveniles, 
but,  unlike  most  other  animals,  humans  continue  to  play  throughout  their  lives,  most 
notably  through  humor. 

When  they  engage  in  play,  people  take  a  nonserious  attitude  toward  the  things 
they  are  saying  or  doing,  and  they  carry  out  these  activities  for  their  own  sake — 
for  the  fun  of  it — rather  than  having  a  more  important  goal  in  mind.  Psychologist 
Michael  Apter  (1991)  has  referred  to  the  playful  state  of  mind  associated  with  humor 
as  the  paratelic  mode,  which  he  distinguishes  from  the  more  serious,  goal-directed  telic 
mode  (from  Greek  telos  =  goal).  According  to  Apter,  we  switch  back  and  forth  between 
these  serious  and  playful  states  of  mind  many  times  during  the  course  of  a  typical  day. 
The  humorous,  playful  mode  of  functioning  can  occur  for  brief  moments  or  for 
extended  periods  of  time.  In  a  business  meeting,  for  example,  someone  may  make  a 
humorous  quip  that  causes  the  group  to  laugh  and  enter  the  playful  paratelic  frame 
of  mind  for  a  brief  moment,  before  resuming  their  more  serious  telic  mode  of  dis- 
course. In  more  casual  settings,  when  people  are  feeling  relaxed  and  uninhibited,  they 
may  engage  in  playful  and  humorous  storytelling  and  joke  swapping  for  several  hours 
at  a  time. 

Cognitive-Perceptual  Processes  in  Humor 

Besides  occurring  in  a  social  context,  humor  is  characterized  by  particular  sorts 
of  cognitions.  To  produce  humor,  an  individual  needs  to  mentally  process  informa- 
tion coming  from  the  environment  or  from  memory,  playing  with  ideas,  words,  or 
actions  in  a  creative  way,  and  thereby  generating  a  witty  verbal  utterance  or  a  comical 
nonverbal  action  that  is  perceived  by  others  to  be  funny.  In  the  reception  of  humor, 
we  take  in  information  (something  someone  says  or  does,  or  something  we  read) 
through  our  eyes  and  ears,  process  the  meaning  of  this  information,  and  appraise  it 
as  nonserious,  playful,  and  humorous. 

What  are  the  characteristics  of  a  stimulus  that  cause  us  to  perceive  it  to  be  funny? 
As  we  will  see  in  the  next  two  chapters,  this  question  has  been  a  topic  of  much  schol- 
arly debate  and  research  for  centuries  (see  also  Roeckelein,  2002).  Most  investigators 
would  agree,  however,  that  humor  involves  an  idea,  image,  text,  or  event  that  is  in 
some  sense  incongruous,  odd,  unusual,  unexpected,  surprising,  or  out  of  the  ordinary. 
In  addition,  there  needs  to  be  some  aspect  that  causes  us  to  appraise  the  stimulus  as 
nonserious  or  unimportant,  putting  us  into  a  playful  frame  of  mind  at  least  momen- 
tarily. Thus,  the  essence  of  humor  seems  to  be  incongruity,  unexpectedness,  and  play- 
fulness, which  evolutionary  theorists  Matthew  Gervais  and  David  Wilson  (2005) 
referred  to  as  "nonserious  social  incongruity."  This  constellation  of  cognitive  elements 
appears  to  characterize  all  forms  of  humor,  including  jokes,  teasing,  and  witty  banter, 
unintentional  types  of  humor  such  as  amusing  slips  of  the  tongue  or  the  proverbial 
person  slipping  on  the  banana  peel,  the  laughter-eliciting  peek-a-boo  games  and 


rough-and-tumble  play  of  children,  and  even  the  humor  of  chimpanzees  and  gorillas 
(Wyer  and  Collins,  1992). 

Arthur  Koestler  (1964)  coined  the  term  bisodation  to  refer  to  the  mental  process 
involved  in  perceiving  humorous  incongruity.  According  to  Koestler,  bisociation 
occurs  when  a  situation,  event,  or  idea  is  simultaneously  perceived  from  the  perspec- 
tive of  two  self-consistent  but  normally  unrelated  and  even  incompatible  frames  of 
reference.  Thus,  a  single  event  "is  made  to  vibrate  simultaneously  on  two  different 
wavelengths,  as  it  were"  (p.  35).  A  simple  example  is  a  pun,  in  which  two  different 
meanings  of  a  word  or  phrase  are  brought  together  simultaneously  (e.g.,  Two  canni- 
bals are  eating  a  clown.  One  says  to  the  other,  "Does  this  taste  funny  to  you?"). 
According  to  Koestler,  this  same  process  underlies  all  types  of  humor. 

Michael  Apter  (1982)  used  the  concept  of  synergy  to  describe  this  cognitive 
process,  in  which  two  contradictory  images  or  conceptions  of  the  same  object  are  held 
in  one's  mind  at  the  same  time.  In  the  playful  paratelic  state,  according  to  Apter,  syn- 
ergies are  enjoyable  and  emotionally  arousing,  producing  the  pleasurable  sensation  of 
having  one's  thoughts  oscillate  back  and  forth  between  two  incompatible  interpreta- 
tions of  a  concept.  Thus,  in  humor,  we  playfully  manipulate  ideas  and  activities  so 
that  they  are  simultaneously  perceived  in  opposite  ways,  such  as  real  and  not  real, 
important  and  trivial,  threatening  and  safe.  As  we  will  see  in  later  chapters,  a  great 
deal  of  theoretical  discussion  and  research  in  the  psychology  of  humor  has  focused 
on  exploring  in  greater  detail  the  cognitive  processes  underlying  the  perception  and 
appreciation  of  humor. 

Emotional  Aspects  of  Humor 

Our  response  to  humor  is  not  just  an  intellectual  one.  The  perception  of  humor 
invariably  also  evokes  a  pleasant  emotional  response,  at  least  to  some  degree.  Psy- 
chological studies  have  shown  that  exposure  to  humorous  stimuli  produces  an  increase 
in  positive  affect  and  mood  (Szabo,  2003).  The  emotional  nature  of  humor  is  also 
clearly  demonstrated  by  recent  brain  imaging  research  showing  that  exposure  to 
humorous  cartoons  activates  the  well-known  reward  network  in  the  limbic  system  of 
the  brain  (Mobbs  et  al.,  2003).  The  funnier  a  particular  cartoon  is  rated  by  a  partic- 
ipant, the  more  strongly  these  parts  of  the  brain  are  activated.  From  other  research, 
we  know  that  these  same  brain  circuits  underlie  pleasurable  emotional  states  associ- 
ated with  a  variety  of  enjoyable  activities  including  eating,  listening  to  enjoyable 
music,  sexual  activity,  and  even  ingestion  of  mood-altering  drugs.  This  explains  why 
humor  is  so  enjoyable  and  why  people  go  to  such  lengths  to  experience  it  as  often  as 
they  can:  whenever  we  laugh  at  something  funny,  we  are  experiencing  an  emotional 
high  that  is  rooted  in  the  biochemistry  of  our  brains. 

It  can  therefore  be  argued  that  humor  is  essentially  an  emotion  that  is  elicited  by 
the  particular  types  of  cognitive  processes  discussed  in  the  previous  section.  Just  as 
other  emotions  like  joy,  jealousy,  or  fear  occur  in  response  to  specific  types  of 
appraisals  of  the  social  and  physical  environment  (Lazarus,  1991),  so  humor  comprises 
an  emotional  response  that  is  elicited  by  a  particular  set  of  appraisals,  namely  the 

1      •     INTRODUCTION    TO    THE    PSYCHOLOGY    OF    HUMOR 

perception  that  an  event  or  situation  is  incongruously  funny  or  amusing.  The  pleas- 
ant emotion  associated  with  humor,  which  is  familiar  to  all  of  us,  is  a  unique  feeling 
of  well-being  that  is  described  by  such  terms  as  amusement,  mirth,  hilarity,  cheerfulness, 
and  merriment.  It  is  closely  related  to  joy,  and  contains  an  element  of  exultation  and 
a  feeling  of  invincibility,  a  sense  of  expansion  of  the  self  that  the  seventeenth-century 
English  philosopher  Thomas  Hobbes  referred  to  as  "sudden  glory." 

Surprisingly,  although  it  is  a  feeling  that  is  familiar  to  everyone,  scholars  have  not 
yet  settled  on  an  agreed-upon  technical  term  to  denote  this  particular  emotion. 
Researchers  have  specific  terms  to  denote  emotions  like  joy,  love,  fear,  anxiety,  depres- 
sion, and  so  forth,  but  there  is  no  common  name  for  the  emotion  elicited  by  humor. 
This  is  because  it  is  so  closely  aligned  with  laughter  that,  until  recently,  theorists  and 
researchers  have  tended  to  focus  on  the  more  obvious  behavior  of  laughter  instead  of 
the  emotion  that  underlies  it.  Some  researchers  have  used  the  expressions  "humor 
appreciation"  (e.g.,  Weisfeld,  1993)  or  "amusement"  (e.g.,  Shiota  et  al.,  2004)  to 
denote  this  emotion,  but  these  terms  seem  to  be  too  cognitive  and  do  not  fully  capture 
its  emotional  nature.  Psychologist  Willibald  Ruch  (1993)  has  proposed  the  word  exhil- 
aration (related  to  hilarity,  from  Latin  hilaris  =  cheerful)  as  a  technical  term  for  this 
emotion.  While  exhilaration,  in  its  common  English  meaning,  contains  a  sense  of 
excitement  in  addition  to  cheerfulness,  Ruch  suggested  that  this  use  of  the  term  would 
de-emphasize  the  excitement  component,  underscoring  instead  the  emotional  quality 
of  cheerfulness,  amusement,  and  funniness.  However,  this  term  does  not  seem  to  have 
caught  on  with  researchers,  who  likely  have  difficulty  shedding  the  connotation  of 

To  denote  this  emotion,  we  need  a  term  that  is  clearly  emotion-related  and  is 
associated  with  humor  and  laughter  but  without  being  synonymous  with  either  one, 
and  which  can  have  a  range  of  intensities.  In  my  view,  the  word  mirth  works  very  well 
for  this  purpose.  The  Oxford  English  Dictionary  defines  mirth  as  "pleasurable  feeling, 
. . .  joy,  happiness;  gaiety  of  mind,  as  manifested  in  jest  and  laughter;  merriment,  hilar- 
ity" (Simpson  and  Weiner,  1989,  p.  841).  This  seems  to  be  exactly  the  required 
meaning.  Some  researchers  have  used  the  word  mirth  to  refer  to  smiling  and  laugh- 
ter, which  are  facial  and  vocal  expressions  of  the  emotion  rather  than  the  emotion 
itself,  and  therefore  should  be  kept  distinct.  In  this  book,  then,  I  will  refer  to  this 
emotion  as  mirth. 

Mirth,  then,  is  the  distinctive  emotion  that  is  elicited  by  the  perception  of  humor. 
Like  other  emotions  (e.g.,  joy,  love,  sadness,  fear),  mirth  can  occur  with  varying 
degrees  of  intensity,  ranging  from  mild  feelings  of  amusement  to  very  high  levels  of 
hilarity  (Ruch,  1993).  Also  like  other  emotions,  mirth  has  physiological  as  well  as  expe- 
riential components.  Along  with  the  distinctive  subjective  feelings  of  pleasure,  amuse- 
ment, and  cheerfulness,  this  emotion  is  accompanied  by  a  range  of  biochemical 
changes  in  the  brain,  autonomic  nervous  system,  and  endocrine  system,  involving  a 
variety  of  molecules,  including  neurotransmitters,  hormones,  opioids,  and  neuropep- 
tides  (Panksepp,  1993).  This  neurochemical  cocktail  has  further  effects  on  many  parts 
of  the  body,  including  the  cardiovascular,  muskuloskeletal,  digestive,  and  immune 
systems  (W.  F.  Fry,  1994).  The  biological  concomitants  of  the  emotion  of  mirth  form 


the  basis  of  claims  that  have  been  made  in  recent  years  about  potential  health  bene- 
fits of  humor  and  laughter.  However,  the  exact  nature  of  the  physiological  changes 
accompanying  mirth  is  not  yet  well  understood,  and  further  research  is  needed  before 
we  can  say  with  confidence  whether  these  effects  have  significant  health  benefits 
(R.  A.  Martin,  2001,2002). 

The  essentially  emotional  nature  of  humor  is  something  that  many  scholars  have 
failed  to  recognize  until  quite  recently.  In  the  past,  most  theorists  and  researchers  have 
viewed  it  as  primarily  a  cognitive  process  rather  than  an  emotional  one.  A  great  deal 
of  philosophical  debate  and  research  effort  has  been  expended  on  attempts  to  iden- 
tify the  precise  cognitive-perceptual  elements  that  are  necessary  and  sufficient  for 
humor  to  occur,  with  little  recognition  of  the  fact  that  what  these  cognitive  appraisals 
elicit  is  an  emotion.  This  would  be  like  researchers  who  study  depression  or  anxiety 
spending  all  their  time  debating  about  the  specific  types  of  events  and  cognitive 
appraisals  that  elicit  these  mood  states  without  ever  noticing  their  emotional  nature. 
Although  much  has  been  learned  about  the  cognitive  aspects  of  humor  (and  there  is 
still  more  work  to  do  in  this  area),  theory  and  research  directed  at  the  emotional  com- 
ponent of  humor  has  only  recently  begun.  Recent  research  efforts  bridging  social  and 
biological  psychology  hold  particular  promise  for  further  exciting  breakthroughs  in 
this  area. 

Laughter  as  an  Expression  of  the  Emotion  of  Mirth 

Like  other  emotions,  the  mirthful  pleasure  accompanying  humor  also  has  an 
expressive  component,  namely  laughter  and  smiling.  At  low  levels  of  intensity,  this 
emotion  is  expressed  by  a  faint  smile,  which  turns  into  a  broader  grin  and  then  audible 
chuckling  and  laughter  as  the  emotional  intensity  increases.  At  very  high  intensities, 
it  is  expressed  by  loud  guffaws,  often  accompanied  by  a  reddening  of  the  face  as  well 
as  bodily  movements  such  as  throwing  back  the  head,  rocking  the  body,  slapping  one's 
thighs,  and  so  on.  Thus,  laughter  is  essentially  a  way  of  expressing  or  communicat- 
ing to  others  the  fact  that  one  is  experiencing  the  emotion  of  mirth,  just  as  frowning, 
scowling,  yelling,  and  clenching  one's  fists  communicate  the  emotion  of  anger.  Laugh- 
ter is  therefore  fundamentally  a  social  behavior:  if  there  were  no  other  people  to  com- 
municate to,  we  would  not  need  laughter.  This  is  no  doubt  why  it  is  so  loud,  why  it 
comprises  such  a  distinctive  and  easily  recognized  set  of  sounds,  and  why  it  rarely 
occurs  in  social  isolation. 

As  we  have  already  seen,  the  laughter  of  chimpanzees  and  other  apes  is  typically 
accompanied  by  a  characteristic  facial  expression  called  the  relaxed  open-mouth 
display,  or  play  face,  which  is  also  seen  in  other  primates  and  is  shown  during  play. 
Many  theorists  have  suggested  that  the  main  function  of  laughter,  in  humans  as  well 
as  apes,  is  to  signal  to  others  that  one  is  engaging  in  play,  rather  than  being  serious 
(e.g.,  van  Hooff,  1972).  When  chimpanzees  are  playfully  fighting  and  chasing  each 
other,  it  is  important  for  them  to  be  able  to  let  each  other  know  that  they  are  just 
having  fun  and  not  seriously  intending  to  harm  one  another.  In  humans  also,  laugh- 
ter can  be  a  signal  of  friendliness  and  playful  intentions,  indicating  that  one  is  in  a 

1      •     INTRODUCTION    TO    THE    PSYCHOLOGY    OF    HUMOR 

nonserious  frame  of  mind.  The  laughter  accompanying  friendly  teasing,  for  example, 
signals  that  a  seemingly  insulting  message  is  not  to  be  taken  seriously. 

More  recently,  researchers  have  suggested  that  the  purpose  of  laughter  is  not  just 
to  communicate  that  one  is  in  a  playful  state,  but  to  actually  induce  this  state  in  others 
as  well  (Owren  and  Bachorowski,  2003;  Russell,  Bachorowski,  and  Fernandez-Dols, 
2003).  According  to  this  view,  the  peculiar  sounds  of  laughter  have  a  direct  effect  on 
the  listener,  inducing  positive  emotional  arousal  that  mirrors  the  emotional  state  of 
the  laugher,  perhaps  by  activating  certain  specialized  brain  circuits  (Gervais  and 
Wilson,  2005;  Provine,  2000).  In  this  way,  laughter  may  serve  an  important  biosocial 
function  of  coupling  together  the  positive  emotions  of  members  of  a  group  and 
thereby  coordinating  their  activities.  This  would  explain  why  laughter  is  so  conta- 
gious; when  we  hear  someone  laughing,  it  is  almost  impossible  not  to  feel  mirthful 
and  begin  laughing  too.  Yet  another  potential  social  function  of  laughter  is  to  moti- 
vate others  to  behave  in  particular  ways  (Shiota  et  al.,  2004).  For  example,  laughter 
can  be  a  method  of  positively  reinforcing  others  for  desirable  behavior  ("laughing 
with"),  as  well  as  a  potent  form  of  punishment  directed  at  undesirable  behaviors 
("laughing  at"). 

In  summary,  the  psychological  process  of  humor  involves  a  social  context,  a 
cognitive  appraisal  process  comprising  the  perception  of  playful  incongruity,  the  emo- 
tional response  of  mirth,  and  the  vocal-behavioral  expression  of  laughter.  Neurolog- 
ical studies  indicate  that  these  different  components  of  the  humor  process  involve 
different  but  interconnected  regions  of  the  brain  (Wild  et  al.,  2003).  The  word  humor 
is  often  used  in  a  narrow  sense  to  refer  specifically  to  the  cognitive-perceptual  com- 
ponent, the  mental  processes  that  go  into  creating  or  perceiving  something  funny  or 
amusing.  I  will  also  occasionally  use  it  in  this  narrow  sense,  since  there  does  not  seem 
to  be  another  word  to  denote  this  cognitive  process.  It  is  important  to  bear  in  mind, 
though,  that  in  a  broader  sense,  humor  refers  to  all  four  components,  and  all  of  them 
need  to  be  addressed  in  an  integrative  psychology  of  humor. 


We  have  seen  that  humor  is  essentially  an  emotional  response  of  mirth  in  a  social 
context  that  is  elicited  by  a  perception  of  playful  incongruity  and  is  expressed  through 
smiling  and  laughter.  Although  these  basic  elements  are  common  to  all  instances  of 
humor,  the  range  of  social  situations  and  events  that  can  elicit  the  humor  response  is 
remarkably  diverse.  During  the  course  of  a  typical  day,  we  encounter  many  different 
forms  of  humor  communicated  by  different  means  and  for  different  purposes.  Some 
of  this  humor  comes  to  us  via  the  mass  media.  Radio  hosts  frequently  crack  jokes  and 
make  witty  comments;  television  provides  us  with  a  constant  diet  of  humor  in  the 
form  of  sitcoms,  blooper  shows,  stand-up  comedy,  political  satire,  and  humorous 
advertisements;  and  we  encounter  it  also  in  newspaper  comic  strips  and  cartoons, 
comedy  movies,  and  humorous  books.  Humor  is  also  often  used  in  speeches,  sermons, 
and  lectures  by  politicians,  religious  leaders,  motivational  speakers,  and  teachers. 


However,  most  of  the  humor  and  laughter  that  we  experience  in  our  daily  lives 
arises  spontaneously  in  the  course  of  our  normal  relations  with  other  people  (R.  A. 
Martin  and  Kuiper,  1999).  This  sort  of  interpersonal  humor  occurs  in  nearly  every 
type  of  informal  and  formal  interaction,  including  conversations  between  lovers,  close 
friends,  fellow  students,  coworkers,  business  associates,  store  clerks  and  customers, 
doctors  and  patients,  teachers  and  students,  and  even  complete  strangers  standing  in 
line  at  a  bank. 

Individuals  vary  in  the  degree  to  which  they  produce  humor  in  their  daily  inter- 
actions with  others.  Most  of  us  enjoy  the  positive  emotion  of  mirth  so  much  that  we 
highly  value  those  individuals  who  are  especially  good  at  making  us  laugh.  These  are 
the  people  that  we  often  describe  as  having  a  "good  sense  of  humor,"  and  they  tend 
to  be  particularly  sought  out  as  friends  and  romantic  partners.  Some  people  develop 
such  a  talent  at  eliciting  mirth  in  others  and  making  them  laugh  that  they  become 
professional  humor  producers,  entering  the  ranks  of  humorous  authors,  cartoonists, 
stand-up  comedians,  comedy  writers,  and  actors.  The  billions  of  dollars  spent  on 
various  forms  of  comedy  each  year  further  attest  to  the  high  value  placed  on  the  emo- 
tional pleasure  associated  with  humor. 

The  humor  that  occurs  in  our  everyday  social  interactions  can  be  divided  into 
three  broad  categories:  (1)  jokes,  which  are  prepackaged  humorous  anecdotes 
that  people  memorize  and  pass  on  to  one  another;  (2)  spontaneous  conversational 
humor,  which  is  created  intentionally  by  individuals  during  the  course  of  a  social  inter- 
action, and  can  be  either  verbal  or  nonverbal;  and  (3)  accidental  or  unintentional 


During  the  course  of  normal  conversations,  some  people  like  to  amuse  others  by 
telling  jokes,  which  are  short,  amusing  stories  ending  in  a  punch  line.  These  are  some- 
times also  referred  to  as  "canned  jokes"  to  distinguish  them  from  the  sorts  of  infor- 
mal jesting  and  witty  quips  to  which  the  words  joke  and  joking  can  also  refer.  Here  is 
an  example  of  a  joke  of  this  sort  (from  Long  and  Graesser,  1988,  p.  49): 

A  man  goes  to  a  psychiatrist  who  gives  him  a  battery  of  tests.  Then  he  announces  his  findings.  "I'm 
sorry  to  have  to  tell  you  that  you  are  hopelessly  insane."  "Hell,"  says  the  client,  indignantly,  "I  want 
a  second  opinion."  "Okay,"  says  the  doctor,  "You're  ugly  too." 

The  joke  consists  of  a  setup  and  a  punch  line.  The  setup,  which  includes  all  but 
the  last  sentence,  creates  in  the  listener  a  particular  set  of  expectations  about  how  the 
situation  should  be  interpreted.  The  punch  line  suddenly  shifts  the  meaning  in  an 
unexpected  and  playful  way,  thus  creating  the  perception  of  nonserious  incongruity 
that  is  necessary  for  humor  to  occur.  In  this  particular  joke,  the  punch  line  plays  on 
the  meaning  of  the  phrase  "second  opinion,"  shifting  the  frame  of  reference  from  that 
of  a  serious,  professional  doctor-patient  relationship  to  a  nonsensical  one  in  which 
one  person  is  insulting  another.  The  story  is  clearly  playful  and  nonserious,  convey- 
ing that  the  whole  thing  is  meant  to  be  taken  as  fun.  Note,  however,  that  there  is  also 

1      •     INTRODUCTION    TO    THE    PSYCHOLOGY    OF    HUMOR 

an  aggressive  element  in  this  joke  ("You're  ugly  too").  As  we  will  see,  there  is  much 
debate  about  the  degree  to  which  aggression  is  an  essential  aspect  of  all  jokes  (and 
perhaps  even  all  humor). 

In  everyday  conversation,  joke-telling  is  usually  prefaced  by  verbal  or  nonverbal 
cues  (e.g.,  "Did  you  hear  the  one  about .  .  .")  or  conforms  to  certain  stock  formats 
(e.g.,  "A  man  went  into  a  bar  .  .  .")  that  indicate  to  the  audience  that  the  story  is  meant 
to  be  humorous  and  that  the  listeners  are  expected  to  laugh  (Cashion,  Cody,  and 
Erickson,  1986).  Although  joke-tellers  typically  try  to  draw  links  between  the  jokes 
they  tell  and  the  ongoing  topic  of  conversation,  a  joke  is  a  context-free  and  self- 
contained  unit  of  humor  that  carries  within  itself  all  the  information  needed  for  it  to 
be  understood  and  enjoyed.  It  can  therefore  be  told  in  many  different  conversational 
contexts  (Long  and  Graesser,  1988).  Riddles  are  another  form  of  prepackaged  humor 
closely  related  to  jokes,  which  often  involve  a  play  on  words  and  are  particularly 
enjoyed  by  young  children  (e.g.,  Why  did  the  cookie  cry?  Because  his  mother  was  a 
wafer  so  long). 

Spontaneous  Conversational  Humor 

Canned  jokes  represent  only  a  small  proportion  of  the  humor  that  we  experience 
in  our  everyday  social  interactions.  In  a  daily  diary  study  in  which  we  had  adults  keep 
a  record  of  every  time  they  laughed  over  the  course  of  three  days,  my  colleague 
Nicholas  Kuiper  and  I  found  that  only  about  1 1  percent  of  daily  laughter  occurred  in 
response  to  jokes.  Another  17  percent  was  elicited  by  the  media,  and  fully  72  percent 
arose  spontaneously  during  social  interactions,  either  in  response  to  funny  comments 
that  people  made  or  to  amusing  anecdotes  they  told  about  things  that  had  happened 
to  them  (R.  A.  Martin  and  Kuiper,  1999).  This  sort  of  spontaneous  conversational 
humor  is  more  context-dependent  than  joke-telling,  and  is  therefore  often  not  as 
funny  when  recounted  afterwards  ("You  had  to  be  there").  In  such  conversational 
humor,  nonverbal  cues  indicating  a  humorous  intent,  such  as  a  twinkle  in  the  eye  or 
a  particular  tone  of  voice,  are  often  more  ambiguous  than  in  joke-telling,  so  that  the 
listener  is  often  not  entirely  sure  if  the  speaker  is  jesting  or  being  serious. 

Spontaneous  conversational  humor  takes  many  different  forms,  and  many  differ- 
ent words  exist  to  describe  them  (e.g.,  jest,  witticism,  quip,  wisecrack,  gag).  Neal  Norrick 
(2003),  a  linguist  who  has  conducted  research  on  humor  occurring  in  everyday  con- 
versation, suggested  that,  besides  the  telling  of  canned  jokes,  conversational  humor 
may  be  classified  into  (1)  anecdotes  (relating  an  amusing  story  about  oneself  or  someone 
else);  (2)  wordplay  (creating  puns,  witty  responses,  or  wisecracks  that  play  on  the 
meaning  of  words);  and  (3)  irony  (a  statement  in  which  the  literal  meaning  is  differ- 
ent from  the  intended  meaning). 

A  more  extensive  classification  system  of  spontaneous  conversational  humor 
(which  they  referred  to  as  wit),  was  developed  by  psychologists  Debra  Long  and 
Arthur  Graesser  (1988).  To  obtain  a  broad  sample  of  the  types  of  humor  occurring  in 
naturalistic  conversations,  these  authors  recorded  a  number  of  episodes  of  television 
talk  shows  (e.g.,  The  Tonight  Show)  and  then  analyzed  the  different  types  of  humor 


that  arose  in  the  interactions  between  the  hosts  and  their  guests.  Audience  laughter 
was  used  as  an  indicator  of  humor.  Based  on  their  analyses,  these  authors  identified 
the  following  1 1  categories,  which  were  distinguished  from  one  another  on  the  basis 
of  their  intentions  or  uses  of  humor: 

1 .  Irony — the  speaker  expresses  a  statement  in  which  the  literal  meaning  is  opposite 
to  the  intended  meaning  (e.g.,  saying  "What  a  beautiful  day!"  when  the  weather 
is  cold  and  stormy). 

2.  Satire — aggressive  humor  that  pokes  fun  at  social  institutions  or  social  policy. 

3.  Sarcasm — aggressive  humor  that  targets  an  individual  rather  than  an  institution 
(e.g.,  At  a  fashionable  dinner,  a  dignified  lady  rebuked  Winston  Churchill:  "Sir, 
you  are  drunk."  "Yes,"  replied  Churchill,  "and  you  are  ugly.  But  tomorrow  I  shall 
be  sober  and  you  shall  still  be  ugly"). 

4.  Overstatement  and  understatement — changing  the  meaning  of  something  another 
person  has  said  by  repeating  it  with  a  different  emphasis  (e.g.,  A  guest  asks  host 
Johnny  Carson,  who  had  been  married  several  times:  "Have  you  ever  been 
married?"  A  second  guest  says,  "Has  he  ever  been  married!"). 

5.  Self-deprecation — humorous  remarks  targeting  oneself  as  the  object  of  humor.  This 
may  be  done  to  demonstrate  modesty,  to  put  the  listener  at  ease,  or  to  ingratiate 
oneself  with  the  listener. 

6.  Teasing — humorous  remarks  directed  at  the  listener's  personal  appearance  or 
foibles.  Unlike  sarcasm,  the  intention  is  not  to  seriously  insult  or  offend. 

7.  Replies  to  rhetorical  questions — because  rhetorical  questions  are  not  asked  with  the 
expectation  of  a  reply,  giving  an  answer  to  one  violates  a  conversational  expecta- 
tion and  surprises  the  person  who  posed  the  question.  This  can  therefore  be  per- 
ceived as  funny,  and  the  intention  is  usually  to  simply  entertain  a  conversational 

8.  Clever  replies  to  serious  statements — clever,  incongruous,  or  nonsensical  replies  to  a 
statement  or  question  that  was  meant  to  be  serious.  The  statement  is  deliberately 
misconstrued  so  that  the  speaker  replies  to  a  meaning  other  than  the  intended 

9.  Double  entendres — a  statement  or  word  is  deliberately  misperceived  or  miscon- 
strued so  as  to  evoke  a  dual  meaning,  which  is  often  sexual  in  nature. 

10.  Transformations  of  frozen  expressions — transforming  well-known  sayings,  cliches,  or 
adages  into  novel  statements  (e.g.,  complaint  of  a  bald  man:  "Hair  today,  gone 

1 1 .  Puns — humorous  use  of  a  word  that  evokes  a  second  meaning,  usually  based  on 
a  homophone  (i.e.,  a  word  with  a  different  meaning  that  sounds  the  same). 

Although  these  categories  are  not  mutually  exclusive  and  there  may  be  other 
forms  of  spontaneous  wit  that  occur  in  natural  conversation  but  are  not  observed  in 
television  talk  shows  (Wyer  and  Collins,  1992),  this  list  does  provide  a  useful  starting 
point  for  thinking  about  the  many  different  ways  humor  may  be  expressed.  Neal 
Norrick  (1984)  also  discussed  what  he  called  stock  conversational  witticisms,  which 
are  humorous  sayings  or  expressions  that  are  routinely  and  recurrently  used  in 


conversation  (e.g.,  "faster  than  greased  lightning,"  or  "bring  that  up  again  and  we'll 
vote  on  it"  in  response  to  someone  belching).  Besides  these  verbal  forms  of  humor, 
people  also  often  intentionally  create  humor  in  social  interactions  by  nonverbal 
means,  such  as  funny  or  exaggerated  facial  expressions,  odd  ways  of  walking,  bodily 
gestures,  or  mannerisms. 

Unintentional  Humor 

In  addition  to  the  things  people  say  and  do  during  social  interactions  with  the 
intention  of  amusing  others,  much  mirth  and  laughter  also  arise  from  utterances  or 
actions  that  are  not  meant  to  be  fanny  (Wyer  and  Collins,  1992).  English  literature 
professors  Alleen  Nilsen  and  Don  Nilsen  (2000)  referred  to  these  as  accidental  humor, 
which  they  divided  into  physical  and  linguistic  forms.  Accidental  physical  humor 
includes  minor  mishaps  and  pratfalls  such  as  the  person  slipping  on  a  banana  peel  or 
spilling  a  drink  on  one's  shirt.  These  sorts  of  events  are  funny  when  they  occur  in  a 
surprising  and  incongruous  manner  and  when  the  person  experiencing  them  is  not 
seriously  hurt  or  badly  embarrassed.  This  type  of  humor  also  forms  the  basis  of  slap- 
stick and  screwball  comedy. 

Accidental  linguistic  humor  arises  from  misspellings,  mispronunciations,  errors 
in  logic,  and  the  kinds  of  speaker  confusions  called  Freudian  slips,  malapropisms,  and 
spoonerisms.  This  type  of  unintentional  humor  occurs,  for  example,  in  newspaper 
headlines  in  which  an  ambiguity  creates  a  humorous  alternative  meaning  (e.g.,  "Pros- 
titutes appeal  to  pope";  "Dr.  Ruth  talks  about  sex  with  newspaper  editors";  "Red  tape 
holds  up  bridge").  Spoonerisms  are  a  speech  error  in  which  the  initial  sounds  of  two 
or  more  words  are  transposed,  creating  an  unintended  and  humorous  new  meaning. 
They  were  named  after  a  nineteenth-century  British  clergyman  named  William 
Spooner  who  frequently  made  such  mistakes  in  his  sermons  and  speeches  (e.g.,  he  is 
said  to  have  proposed  a  toast  to  Queen  Victoria,  saying  "Three  cheers  for  our  queer 
old  dean"). 

In  sum,  humor  is  a  ubiquitous  type  of  social  interaction  that  takes  many  differ- 
ent forms.  The  conversational  types  of  humor,  including  joke-telling,  spontaneous 
wit,  and  unintentional  humor,  are  of  particular  interest  to  psychologists.  However, 
until  quite  recently,  most  of  the  psychological  research  on  humor  has  focused  largely 
on  jokes  and  cartoons  (which  are  essentially  visual  jokes),  and  has  generally  ignored 
the  other  types.  This  is  in  large  part  because  of  the  self-contained  and  context-free 
nature  of  jokes  and  cartoons,  which  makes  them  very  easy  to  transport  into  a  labora- 
tory setting.  Over  the  years,  a  great  many  studies  have  been  conducted  in  which  par- 
ticipants (usually  sitting  by  themselves  in  a  laboratory)  were  presented  with  various 
types  of  jokes  and  cartoons  under  a  variety  of  experimental  conditions  and  were  asked 
to  rate  them  for  funniness.  Thus,  in  humor  research,  jokes  and  cartoons  have  long 
served  as  the  equivalent  of  T-mazes  or  nonsense  syllables  in  other  fields,  providing 
experimenters  with  an  independent  variable  that  can  help  control  the  input  in  inves- 
tigations of  this  rather  nebulous  concept. 


However,  humor  in  these  sorts  of  studies  is  removed  from  its  natural  social 
context,  and,  although  these  methods  have  enabled  researchers  to  make  many  inter- 
esting discoveries,  they  are  not  as  useful  for  studying  the  forms  and  functions  of  humor 
as  it  normally  occurs  in  social  interaction.  In  contrast  to  studying  participants' 
responses  to  jokes  in  a  laboratory,  it  is  more  difficult  to  investigate  the  spontaneous 
forms  of  humor  that  arise  in  everyday  conversations  and  depend  on  the  social  context. 
For  this  type  of  research,  investigators  may  need  to  go  out  of  the  laboratory  and  study 
humor  as  it  occurs  spontaneously  in  naturalistic  settings,  or  at  least  have  dyads  or 
groups  of  people  interact  with  one  another  in  the  laboratory. 

Besides  being  the  focus  of  most  research,  jokes  have  also  served  as  the  prototype 
of  humor  in  many  past  theories,  which  have  tended  to  focus  particularly  on  the  cog- 
nitive processes  underlying  the  comprehension  of  these  types  of  humor.  Because  joke 
comprehension  may  be  somewhat  different  from  the  cognitive  processes  involved  in 
other  forms  of  humor,  these  theories  were  often  inadequate  for  explaining  all  types 
of  humor.  More  recently,  researchers  are  beginning  to  develop  theories  that  account 
for  other  sorts  of  humor  occurring  in  social  interaction  besides  jokes  (e.g.,  Wyer  and 
Collins,  1992).  These  theories  often  incorporate  the  emotional  and  social  aspects  of 
humor  as  well  as  the  cognitive  elements. 


Although  it  is  essentially  a  form  of  social  play  enabling  us  to  have  fun  and  derive 
emotional  pleasure  from  nonserious  incongruities,  humor  serves  a  number  of  impor- 
tant and  "serious"  psychological  functions,  which  have  likely  contributed  to  our  sur- 
vival as  a  species.  Some  of  the  benefits  of  humor  derive  from  the  positive  emotion 
associated  with  it,  and  many  of  these  were  likely  already  present  in  the  laughter- 
evoking  rough-and-tumble  play  activities  ("proto-humor")  of  our  early  hominid 
ancestors  even  before  the  evolution  of  language.  Other  functions  seem  to  have  been 
added  on  over  the  course  of  human  evolution  through  a  process  known  as  co-optation 
(Gervais  and  Wilson,  2005).  As  humans  developed  greater  cognitive  and  linguistic 
abilities,  complex  patterns  of  group  interaction,  and  the  ability  to  infer  the  intentions 
and  mental  states  of  others,  humor  and  laughter,  while  originating  in  rough-and- 
tumble  social  play,  came  to  be  used  for  additional  purposes  relating  to  social  com- 
munication and  influence,  tension  relief,  and  coping  with  adversity. 

The  psychological  functions  of  humor  can  be  classified  into  three  broad  cate- 
gories: (1)  cognitive  and  social  benefits  of  tf  ;  positive  emotion  of  mirth,  (2)  uses  of 
humor  for  social  communication  and  influence,  and  (3)  tension  relief  and  coping. 

Cognitive  and  Social  Functions  of  the  Positive  Emotion  of  Mirth 

Human  emotions  have  important  adaptive  functions.  Emotions  such  as  fear 
and  anger,  for  example,  cause  individuals  to  focus  their  attention  on  threats  in  the 

1      •     INTRODUCTION    TO    THE    PSYCHOLOGY    OF    HUMOR 

environment,  mobilize  their  energies,  and  motivate  them  to  take  action  to  deal  with 
these  threats  (Levenson,  1994).  However,  the  functions  of  positive  emotions  like  mirth 
and  joy  are  less  immediately  obvious,  since  they  do  not  seem  to  evoke  specific  action 
patterns.  In  the  past,  psychologists  tended  to  focus  primarily  on  negative  emotions 
like  depression,  fear,  and  hostility,  and  did  not  give  much  attention  to  positive  emo- 
tions like  mirth,  joy,  happiness,  and  love.  More  recently,  however,  psychologists  have 
begun  to  investigate  positive  emotions,  and  this  research  is  beginning  to  shed  light 
on  their  functions. 

Alice  Isen  (2003)  summarized  a  body  of  experimental  research  indicating  that 
when  people  are  experiencing  positive  emotions  (including  comedy-induced  mirth), 
as  compared  to  neutral  or  negative  emotions,  they  show  improvements  in  a  variety  of 
cognitive  abilities  and  social  behaviors.  For  example,  they  demonstrate  greater  cog- 
nitive flexibility,  enabling  them  to  engage  in  more  creative  problem  solving;  more  effi- 
cient organization  and  integration  of  memory;  more  effective  thinking,  planning,  and 
judgment;  and  higher  levels  of  social  responsibility  and  prosocial  behaviors  such  as 
helpfulness  and  generosity  (see  also  Lyubomirsky,  King,  and  Diener,  2005).  An  exper- 
iment by  Barbara  Fredrickson  and  Robert  Levenson  (1998)  also  demonstrated  that 
the  induction  of  positive  emotions,  including  mirth,  helps  to  reduce  physiological 
arousal  caused  by  negative  emotions. 

Based  on  these  sorts  of  findings,  Barbara  Fredrickson  (1998,  2001)  has  proposed 
a  "broaden-and-build"  model  of  the  psychological  functions  of  positive  emotions  such 
as  mirth.  Unlike  negative  emotions,  which  tend  to  narrow  one's  focus  of  attention  and 
motivate  one  to  engage  in  specific  actions,  she  suggested  that  positive  emotions  serve 
to  broaden  the  scope  of  the  individual's  focus  of  attention,  allowing  for  more  creative 
problem-solving  and  an  increased  range  of  behavioral  response  options,  and  they  also 
build  physical,  intellectual,  and  social  resources  that  are  available  to  the  individual  for 
dealing  with  life's  challenges.  She  argued  that  positive  emotions  such  as  mirth  are 
evolved  adaptations  that  contribute  to  both  mental  and  physical  health.  Recent 
research  by  Fredrickson  and  her  colleagues  on  mirth  and  other  positive  emotions  has 
provided  further  support  for  these  hypotheses  (e.g.,  Fredrickson  and  Branigan,  2005; 
Fredrickson  et  al.,  2000). 

Michelle  Shiota  and  her  colleagues  (2004)  have  also  proposed  that  positive  emo- 
tions may  play  an  important  role  in  the  regulation  of  interpersonal  relationships. 
These  authors  pointed  out  that  humans  are  social  animals  that  require  close  rela- 
tionships in  order  to  survive.  They  suggested  that  positive  emotions  play  a  role  in 
accomplishing  three  fundamental  tasks  required  for  relationships:  (1)  identifying 
potential  relationship  partners,  (2)  developing,  negotiating,  and  maintaining  key  rela- 
tionships, and  (3)  collective  agency  (i.e.,  working  together  with  others  to  achieve  goals 
that  could  not  be  accomplished  alone).  They  suggested  that  the  humor-related  posi- 
tive emotion  of  mirth  is  effective  for  accomplishing  all  three  of  these  tasks  in  various 
types  of  relationships,  including  romantic  partnerships,  friendships,  and  group 
relations.  For  example,  the  mirth  associated  with  mutual  laughter  can  be  a  way  of 
identifying  members  of  an  in-group,  selecting  and  attracting  partners,  rewarding 
cooperative  efforts,  and  enhancing  interpersonal  bonding  and  group  cohesion. 


One  way  in  which  humor  likely  provides  important  psychological  benefits,  then, 
is  by  inducing  a  positive  emotional  state  that  is  typically  shared  among  two  or  more 
individuals.  The  enjoyable  subjective  feelings  accompanying  this  emotional  state 
provide  a  strong  incentive  to  seek  out  opportunities  for  humor  and  laughter,  which 
in  turn  fulfill  a  number  of  important  cognitive  and  social  functions.  Many  of  these 
emotion-related  benefits  were  likely  already  present  in  the  proto-humor  of  our  early 
hominid  ancestors,  providing  an  evolutionary  survival  advantage. 

Social  Communication  and  Influence 

As  we  have  seen,  humorous  interactions  between  people  take  a  wide  variety  of 
forms.  When  people  engage  in  these  sorts  of  humorous  exchanges  in  their  everyday 
lives,  they  often  have  some  (perhaps  unconscious)  purpose  or  social  goal  beyond 
merely  providing  amusement  and  entertainment.  Even  when  telling  a  joke  or  saying 
funny  things  to  make  others  laugh,  people  also  often  have  the  underlying  goal  of 
impressing  others  with  their  wittiness  and  gaining  attention,  prestige,  or  approval. 
Sociologist  Michael  Mulkay  (1988)  suggested  that  humor  may  be  viewed  as  a  mode 
of  interpersonal  communication  that  is  frequently  used  to  convey  implicit  messages 
in  an  indirect  manner  and  to  influence  other  people  in  various  ways.  Because  it 
involves  playing  with  incongruities  and  contradictory  ideas  and  conveys  multiple 
meanings  at  once,  humor  is  a  particularly  useful  form  of  communication  in  situations 
in  which  a  more  serious  and  direct  mode  runs  the  risk  of  being  too  confrontational, 
potentially  embarrassing,  or  otherwise  risky. 

For  example,  if  two  friends  attempt  to  discuss  a  difference  of  opinion  in  a  serious 
way,  they  may  become  embroiled  in  endless  arguments  and  counterarguments,  with 
an  accompanying  escalation  in  feelings  of  frustration  and  annoyance.  However,  by 
using  humor  to  joke  about  each  other's  perspective,  they  can  communicate  a  sense  of 
acceptance  and  appreciation  of  one  another  while  still  maintaining  and  acknowledg- 
ing their  different  points  of  view  (Kane,  Suls,  and  Tedeschi,  1977).  Similarly,  if  a  con- 
flict between  two  people  escalates  to  the  point  where  it  threatens  their  relationship, 
a  joking  comment  from  one  of  them  can  be  a  way  of  de-escalating  the  conflict  while 
enabling  both  of  them  to  save  face.  Thus,  humor  can  be  a  means  of  smoothing  over 
conflicts  and  tensions  between  people. 

On  the  other  hand,  humor  is  also  often  used  to  convey  critical  or  disparaging 
messages  that  might  not  be  well  received  if  communicated  in  a  more  serious  manner. 
In  friendly  teasing,  for  example,  a  message  of  mild  disapproval  or  censure  is  commu- 
nicated using  humor  (Keltner  et  al.,  2001).  This  allows  the  speaker  to  retract  the 
message  if  it  is  not  well  received  by  saying  ''I  was  only  joking."  Indeed,  since  every- 
one recognizes  the  ambiguous  nature  of  humor,  such  a  disclaimer  is  usually  not  even 
necessary.  Thus,  humor  is  often  a  way  for  individuals  to  "save  face"  for  themselves 
and  others,  using  it  to  soften  the  impact  of  a  message  or  to  "test  the  water"  to  see 
how  others  will  respond. 

Some  of  the  social  functions  of  humor  can  also  be  quite  aggressive,  coercive,  and 
manipulative.  Although  it  is  a  form  of  play,  humor  is  not  necessarily  prosocial  and 

1      •     INTRODUCTION    TO    THE    PSYCHOLOGY    OF    HUMOR 

benevolent,  and  indeed  a  good  deal  of  humor  involves  laughing  at  the  behavior  and 
characteristics  of  individuals  who  are  perceived  to  be  different  in  some  way  and  there- 
fore incongruous.  Over  the  course  of  human  evolution  (much  of  which  involved  living 
in  small  groups  of  hunter-gatherers),  humor  and  laughter  seem  to  have  been  co-opted 
for  the  purpose  of  enhancing  group  identity  by  enforcing  social  norms  within  the 
group  and  excluding  members  of  out-groups,  and  this  function  of  humor  is  still  very 
evident  today  (Alexander,  1986). 

Whereas  the  "face-saving"  communicative  uses  of  humor  often  involve  only  two 
people,  these  more  aggressive  and  even  hostile  uses  typically  involve  three  individu- 
als or  groups:  the  speaker  who  communicates  the  humorous  message,  the  listener(s) 
who  laugh  at  it,  and  the  target(s)  who  are  the  "butt"  of  the  humor.  The  target,  who 
may  or  may  not  be  physically  present,  may  be  a  particular  individual  or  a  nonspecific 
member  of  a  disparaged  group,  such  as  a  particular  gender,  ethnic,  or  religious  group. 
The  humor  may  be  a  spontaneous  humorous  comment  or  a  canned  ethnic  or  sexist 
joke.  This  type  of  humor  enables  members  of  an  in-group  to  enhance  their  feelings 
of  group  identity  and  cohesiveness  while  excluding  and  emphasizing  their  differences 
from  members  of  an  out-group.  These  aggressive  types  of  humor  are  often  perceived 
by  participants  to  be  extremely  funny  and  they  evoke  genuine  feelings  of  mirth  and 
laughter,  even  though  they  occur  at  the  expense  of  others. 

The  pleasurable  emotion  of  mirth  accompanying  humor  and  laughter  can  there- 
fore be  gained  at  other  people's  expense,  either  by  passively  deriving  amusement  from 
their  misfortunes  (as  described  by  the  interesting  German  word  schadenfreude),  or  by 
actively  seeking  to  humiliate,  embarrass,  or  ridicule  them  in  some  way  and  thereby 
enhancing  one's  own  status  relative  to  theirs.  Thus,  humor  can  involve  "laughing  at" 
as  well  as  "laughing  with."  As  we  will  see,  many  traditional  theories  suggest  that 
aggression  is  actually  an  essential  element  of  all  humor  and  laughter.  Although  most 
theorists  today  would  not  take  such  an  extreme  view,  few  would  disagree  that  humor 
can  be  used  in  aggressive  and  even  hostile  ways. 

Since  being  the  target  of  others'  laughter  is  painful  and  something  most  people 
seek  to  avoid,  aggressive  forms  of  humor  can  also  be  used  as  a  method  of  coercing 
people  into  conforming  to  desired  behaviors.  Within  social  groups,  humor  is  often 
used  to  enforce  group  norms,  either  by  making  fun  of  the  discrepant  actions  and  traits 
of  people  who  are  outside  the  group  or  by  teasing  members  within  the  group  when 
they  engage  in  deviant  behavior.  Thus,  in  aggressive  types  of  joking,  teasing,  ridicule, 
or  sarcasm,  humor  can  be  used  to  exclude  individuals  from  a  group,  reinforce  power 
and  status  differences,  suppress  behavior  that  does  not  conform  to  group  norms,  and 
have  a  coercive  influence  on  others. 

In  summary,  the  social  play  of  humor  can  be  used  to  communicate  a  variety  of 
messages  and  to  achieve  any  number  of  social  goals  that  individuals  may  have  at  any 
particular  time,  some  of  which  may  be  congenial  and  prosocial  while  others  may  be 
more  aggressive  or  coercive.  Humor,  then,  is  inherently  neither  friendly  nor  aggres- 
sive: it  is  a  means  of  deriving  emotional  pleasure  that  can  be  used  for  both  amiable 
and  antagonistic  purposes.  This  is  the  paradox  of  humor.  If  one's  goal  is  to  strengthen 
relationships,  smooth  over  conflicts,  and  build  cohesiveness,  humor  can  be  useful 


for  those  purposes.  On  the  other  hand,  if  one's  goal  is  to  ostracize,  humiliate,  or 
manipulate  someone,  or  to  build  up  one's  own  status  at  the  expense  of  others,  humor 
can  be  useful  for  those  purposes  as  well.  Either  way,  it  can  evoke  genuine  feelings  of 

Tension  Relief  and  Coping  with  Adversity 

Another  function  of  humor  that  has  often  been  noted  is  its  role  in  coping  with 
life  stress  and  adversity  (Lefcourt,  2001;  Lefcourt  and  Martin,  1986).  Over  the  course 
of  evolution,  humans  appear  to  have  co-opted  the  nonserious  play  of  humor  as  a  means 
of  cognitively  managing  many  of  the  events  and  situations  that  threaten  their  well- 
being,  by  making  light  of  them  and  turning  them  into  something  to  be  laughed  at 
(Dixon,  1980).  Because  it  inherently  involves  incongruity  and  multiple  interpretations, 
humor  provides  a  way  for  the  individual  to  shift  perspective  on  a  stressful  situation, 
reappraising  it  from  a  new  and  less  threatening  point  of  view.  As  a  consequence  of 
this  humorous  reappraisal,  the  situation  becomes  less  stressful  and  more  manageable 
(Kuiper,  Martin,  and  Olinger,  1993;  R.  A.  Martin  et  al.,  1993). 

The  positive  emotion  of  mirth  accompanying  humor  replaces  the  feeling  of 
anxiety,  depression,  or  anger  that  would  otherwise  occur,  enabling  the  person  to  think 
more  broadly  and  flexibly  and  to  engage  in  creative  problem  solving  (Fredrickson, 
2001).  In  addition,  this  positive  emotion  may  have  a  physiological  benefit  of  speed- 
ing recovery  from  the  cardiovascular  effects  of  any  negative  stress-related  emotions 
that  may  have  been  evoked  (Fredrickson  and  Levenson,  1998).  Thus,  humor  may  be 
viewed  as  an  important  emotion  regulation  mechanism,  which  can  contribute  to 
mental  health  (Gross  and  Mufioz,  1995). 

Studies  of  survivors  of  extreme  adversity  such  as  the  brutal  conditions  of  con- 
centration camps  indicate  that  humor,  in  the  form  of  joking  about  the  oppressors  as 
well  as  the  hardships  endured,  is  often  an  important  means  of  engendering  positive 
emotions;  maintaining  group  cohesion  and  morale;  preserving  a  sense  of  mastery, 
hope,  and  self-respect;  and  thereby  enabling  individuals  to  survive  in  seemingly  hope- 
less circumstances  (C.  V  Ford  and  Spaulding,  1973;  Frankl,  1984;  Henman,  2001). 
Less  extreme  examples  of  the  liberating  potential  of  humor  as  a  means  of  triumphing 
over  adversity  and  refusing  to  be  defeated  by  the  slings  and  arrows  of  life  can  be  found 
in  the  daily  lives  of  many  people.  Humor  and  laughter  provide  a  means  for  cancer 
patients  to  make  light  of  their  illness  and  maintain  a  spirit  of  optimism,  and  jokes 
about  death  are  a  way  for  people  to  distance  themselves  emotionally  from  thoughts 
of  their  own  mortality.  Thus,  by  laughing  at  the  fundamental  incongruities  of  life  and 
diminishing  threats  by  turning  them  into  objects  of  nonserious  play,  humor  is  a  way 
of  refusing  to  be  overcome  by  the  people  and  situations,  both  large  and  small,  that 
threaten  our  well-being. 

The  aggressive  aspects  of  humor  discussed  earlier  also  play  a  role  in  this  coping 
function.  Many  of  the  threats  to  well-being  that  humans  experience  come  from  other 
people.  By  making  fun  of  the  stupidity,  incompetence,  laziness,  or  other  failings  of 
the  people  who  frustrate,  irritate,  and  annoy  them  and  thwart  their  progress  toward 

1      •     INTRODUCTION    TO    THE     PSYCHOLOGY    OF    HUMOR 

their  goals,  individuals  are  able  to  minimize  the  feelings  of  distress  that  these  others 
might  cause,  and  derive  some  pleasure  at  their  expense.  This  use  of  aggressive  humor 
in  coping  can  be  directed  toward  particular  individuals  who  create  difficulties  or  at 
nonspecific  representatives  of  broader  social  groups  or  power  structures  that  are  per- 
ceived as  irritants.  While  providing  a  means  of  enhancing  personal  feelings  of  well- 
being  in  the  short  run,  however,  such  aggressive  uses  of  humor  for  coping  can  also 
alienate  others  and  have  an  adverse  effect  on  valued  relationships  in  the  longer  term 
(R.  A.  Martin  et  al.,  2003). 

Like  all  forms  of  humor,  the  use  of  humor  for  coping  with  adversity  usually  takes 
place  in  a  social  context.  People  typically  do  not  begin  laughing  and  cracking  jokes 
about  their  problems  when  they  are  all  alone.  Instead,  coping  humor  commonly  takes 
the  form  of  joking  and  laughing  with  other  people,  either  in  the  midst  of  an  adverse 
situation  or  shortly  afterwards.  For  example,  when  the  events  of  a  particularly 
stressful  day  are  discussed  among  a  group  of  close  friends  later  in  the  evening,  diffi- 
culties that  earlier  seemed  distressing  and  overwhelming  can  be  perceived  as  humor- 
ously incongruous  and  become  the  basis  of  a  great  deal  of  hilarity  and  boisterous 
laughter.  The  greater  the  emotional  arousal  and  tension  engendered  by  the  stressful 
events,  the  greater  the  pleasure  and  the  louder  the  laughter  when  joking  about  them 

This  tension-releasing  function  of  humor  has  been  noted  by  many  theorists  over 
the  years,  and  some  have  even  suggested  that  tension  relief  is  a  defining  characteris- 
tic of  all  humor.  Although  this  view  is  perhaps  overstated,  it  does  reflect  one  of  the 
important  functions  of  humor  and  laughter.  Thus,  it  appears  that  over  the  course  of 
human  evolution,  the  cognitive  play  of  humor  has  been  adapted  as  a  means  of  dealing 
with  difficulties  and  hardships,  contributing  to  the  resilience  and  coping  potentials 
that  have  enabled  humans  to  survive  and  thrive. 


Today  the  word  humor  is  an  umbrella  term  with  a  generally  positive,  socially  desir- 
able connotation,  which  refers  to  anything  people  say  or  do  that  is  perceived  to  be 
funny  and  evokes  mirth  and  laughter  in  others.  Interestingly,  this  broad  meaning  of 
humor  has  developed  only  quite  recently.  Indeed,  the  word  has  a  very  interesting  and 
complex  history,  starting  out  with  an  entirely  different  meaning  and  gradually  accu- 
mulating new  connotations  over  the  centuries.  Cultural  historian  Daniel  Wickberg 
(1998)  has  provided  a  detailed  and  fascinating  analysis  of  the  history  of  this  concept, 
from  which  I  have  drawn  much  of  what  follows  (see  also  Ruch,  1998a). 

Etymology  of  Humor 

Humor  began  as  a  Latin  word  (humorem)  meaning  fluid  or  liquid.  It  still  retains 
this  meaning  in  physiology  in  reference  to  bodily  fluids,  such  as  the  aqueous  and  vit- 
reous humors  of  the  eye.  The  Greek  physician  Hippocrates  (fourth  century  B.C.),  who 


is  considered  to  be  the  father  of  medicine,  believed  that  good  health  depends  on  the 
proper  balance  of  four  fluids,  or  "humors,"  of  the  body,  namely  blood,  phlegm,  black 
bile,  and  yellow  bile.  Later,  the  Greek  physician  Galen  (second  century  A.D.),  who 
lived  in  Rome,  introduced  the  idea  that  these  four  fluids  possessed  particular  psycho- 
logical qualities,  so  that  an  excess  of  any  one  of  them  in  an  individual  created  a  certain 
kind  of  temperament  or  character.  A  predominance  of  blood  caused  one  to  have  a  san- 
guine or  cheerful  temperament,  too  much  black  bile  produced  a  melancholic  or 
depressive  personality,  and  so  on. 

Besides  being  seen  as  the  basis  of  relatively  enduring  character  traits,  fluctuations 
in  these  body  fluids  began  also  to  be  viewed  as  the  cause  of  more  temporary  mood 
states.  These  meanings  of  humor  as  an  enduring  character  trait  or  a  temporary  mood 
are  still  present  today  when  we  speak  of  someone  being  a  "good-humored  person"  or 
"in  a  bad  humor."  Thus,  having  originally  referred  to  a  physical  substance,  humor 
gradually  developed  psychological  connotations  relating  to  both  enduring  tempera- 
ment and  temporary  mood.  Until  the  sixteenth  century,  however,  it  still  did  not  have 
any  connotation  of  funniness  or  association  with  laughter. 

In  the  English  language,  the  word  humor  (which  had  been  borrowed  from  the 
French  humeur)  continued  to  evolve.  In  the  sixteenth  century,  the  idea  of  humor  as 
an  unbalanced  temperament  or  personality  trait  led  to  its  use  to  refer  to  any 
behavior  that  deviates  from  social  norms.  Thus,  a  "humor"  came  to  mean  an  odd, 
eccentric,  or  peculiar  person  (cf.  Ben  Jonson's  Every  Man  Out  of  His  Humour,  1598, 
cited  by  Wickberg,  1998).  Because  such  people  were  often  viewed  as  ridiculous,  or 
objects  of  laughter  and  ridicule,  it  was  a  small  step  from  there  to  the  association  of 
humor  with  funniness  and  laughter,  and  its  entry  into  the  field  of  comedy  (Ruch, 

Eventually,  the  odd  or  peculiar  person  who  was  the  object  of  laughter  became 
known  as  a  "humorist,"  whereas  a  "man  of  humor"  was  someone  who  took  pleasure 
in  imitating  the  peculiarities  of  a  humorist  (e.g.,  Corbyn  Morris  in  An  Essay  Toward 
Fixing  the  True  Standard  of  Wit,  Humour,  Raillery,  Satire,  and  Ridicule,  1 744,  cited  by 
Wickberg,  1998).  Thus,  humor  came  to  be  seen  as  a  talent  involving  the  ability  to 
make  others  laugh.  It  was  not  until  the  mid-  to  late  nineteenth  century,  however,  that 
the  term  humorist  took  on  the  modern  meaning  of  someone  who  creates  a  product 
called  "humor"  in  order  to  amuse  others  (Wickberg,  1998).  Mark  Twain  is  viewed  by 
many  scholars  as  one  of  the  first  humorists  in  this  modern  sense. 

Changing  Views  of  Laughter 

At  the  same  time  that  the  meaning  of  the  word  humor  was  evolving  in  the  English 
language,  popular  conceptions  of  laughter  and  the  laughable  were  also  changing 
(Wickberg,  1998).  Prior  to  the  eighteenth  century,  laughter  was  viewed  by  most 
authors  almost  entirely  in  negative  terms.  No  distinction  was  made  between  "laugh- 
ing with"  and  "laughing  at,"  since  all  laughter  was  thought  to  arise  from  making 
fun  of  someone.  Most  references  to  laughter  in  the  Bible,  for  example,  are  linked 
with  scorn,  derision,  mockery,  or  contempt  (Koestler,  1964).  The  philosophical 


conception  of  laughter  as  essentially  a  form  of  aggression  can  be  traced  to  Aristotle, 
who  believed  that  it  was  always  a  response  to  ugliness  or  deformity  in  another  person, 
although  he  thought  it  would  not  occur  if  the  object  of  laughter  aroused  other  strong 
emotions  such  as  pity  or  anger.  Following  in  the  long  tradition  of  Aristotle,  the 
seventeenth-century  English  philosopher  Thomas  Hobbes  saw  laughter  as  being 
based  on  a  feeling  of  superiority,  or  "sudden  glory,"  resulting  from  some  perception 
of  inferiority  in  another  person. 

During  the  eighteenth  century,  the  word  ridicule  (from  Latin  ridiculum  =  joke  and 
ridiculus  =  laughable)  was  used  in  much  the  same  way  that  we  use  the  word  humor 
today,  that  is,  as  a  generic  term  for  anything  that  causes  laughter  and  mirth.  However, 
it  had  a  much  more  negative  and  aggressive  connotation  than  humor  has  today. 
Whereas  laughter  was  a  passive  response,  ridicule  was  seen  as  active  and  aggressive, 
a  form  of  attack.  Throughout  Europe  during  this  time,  ridicule  became  a  popular 
debating  technique  for  outwitting  and  humiliating  one's  adversaries  by  making  them 
laughable  to  others.  It  also  grew  into  a  socially  accepted  conversational  art  form  for 
entertaining  others  in  social  gatherings.  The  person  who  was  adept  at  generating 
clever  remarks  to  skewer  others  and  thereby  provoke  laughter  was  seen  as  a  particu- 
larly desirable  dinner  guest.  Other  words  that  were  commonly  used  during  this  time 
along  with  ridicule  were  raillery  and  banter.  While  both  of  these  terms  referred  to 
aggressive  forms  of  witty  repartee  used  in  conversation,  banter  was  seen  as  a  coarser, 
more  impolite,  and  low-class  type  of  ridicule,  whereas  raillery  was  more  refined  and 
socially  pleasing. 

With  the  growing  view  of  ridicule  as  a  socially  acceptable  verbal  art  form  and  a 
desirable  part  of  amiable  conversation,  the  idea  of  laughter  as  an  expression  of  con- 
tempt and  scorn  gradually  gave  way  to  a  view  of  it  as  a  response  to  cleverness  and 
gamesmanship.  The  sense  of  superiority  inherent  in  laughter  was  now  downplayed 
and  seen  as  secondary,  and  the  intellectual  aspects  were  elevated  over  the  emotional. 
Laughter  was  now  associated  with  a  game  of  wits,  a  way  of  showing  off  one's  clever- 
ness by  creating  intellectual  surprise  in  novel  relationships  between  ideas,  rather  than 
an  expression  of  contempt,  scorn,  superiority,  and  aggression.  By  the  early  nineteenth 
century,  Hobbes's  superiority  theory  was  being  replaced  by  theories  that  viewed 
incongruity  as  the  essence  of  laughter.  This  theory  was  epitomized  in  the  statement 
by  William  Hazlitt,  an  English  writer  of  the  early  nineteenth  century,  that  "the  essence 
of  the  laughable  is  the  incongruous"  (quoted  by  Wickberg,  1998,  p.  56). 

This  shift  away  from  an  essentially  aggressive  view  of  laughter  was  motivated  also 
by  a  new  sensibility  among  middle-class  British  society  in  the  eighteenth  century  that 
emphasized  the  importance  of  benevolence,  kindness,  civility,  and  sympathy  in  people 
of  refinement.  As  reflected,  for  example,  in  the  writings  of  Adam  Smith  (e.g.,  Theory 
of  Moral  Sentiments,  1759,  cited  by  Wickberg,  1998),  a  new  set  of  humanitarian  values 
elevated  emotional  discernment  above  cold  rational  logic.  In  keeping  with  this  general 
outlook,  social  reformers  began  to  argue  in  favor  of  a  more  humanitarian  form  of 
laughter  based  on  sympathy  rather  than  aggression.  This  led  to  the  need  for  a  new 
word  to  describe  this  benevolent  basis  of  laughter,  and  humor  was  co-opted  to  serve 
this  purpose.  In  contrast,  the  word  ivit  (from  Old  English  -witan  =  to  know)  began  to 


be  used  to  refer  to  the  more  aggressive  types  of  laughter-evoking  behaviors  that  had 
previously  been  described  by  the  generic  term  ridicule.  Thus,  by  the  early  nineteenth 
century,  the  umbrella  term  ridicule  had  been  replaced  by  the  two  contrasting  words 
wit  and  humor. 

Wit  versus  Humor 

Both  wit  and  humor  were  seen  as  being  based  on  incongruity  and  were  methods 
of  provoking  laughter,  but  they  were  thought  to  do  so  in  radically  different  ways.  The 
distinction  between  these  two  concepts  was  first  made  in  theories  of  dramatic  comedy, 
where  wit  was  associated  with  comedy  based  on  intellect,  while  humor  involved 
comedy  based  on  character  (Wickberg,  1998).  Over  time,  wit  took  on  the  meaning  of 
the  old  word  ridicule,  referring  to  aggressive  cleverness  and  wordplay,  whereas  humor 
emphasized  sympathy  and  benevolence,  and  was  seen  as  a  more  positive  and  desirable 
basis  for  laughter.  Wit  was  intellectual,  sarcastic,  and  related  to  antipathy,  whereas 
humor  was  emotional,  congenial,  and  related  to  "fellow-feeling." 

The  two  words  also  had  different  social  class  connotations.  Wit  was  associated 
with  the  aristocracy  and  elitism,  whereas  humor  was  a  more  bourgeois,  middle-class 
concept,  associated  with  universality  and  democracy.  Wit  was  also  considered  to  be 
more  artificial  and  something  that  could  be  acquired  through  learning  and  practice, 
whereas  humor  was  viewed  as  more  natural  and  an  inborn  talent  in  the  individual. 
Thus,  it  was  generally  recognized  that  laughter  could  be  either  aggressive  or  benev- 
olent, and  the  modern  distinction  between  "laughing  at"  and  "laughing  with"  was  cap- 
tured by  wit  and  humor,  respectively. 

Not  surprisingly,  humor  came  to  be  seen  as  more  socially  desirable  than  wit,  and 
was  described  by  many  writers  in  glowing  terms.  For  example,  one  nineteenth-century 
author  described  humor  as  "the  combination  of  the  laughable  with  an  element  of  love, 
tenderness,  sympathy,  warm-heartedness,  or  affection"  (quoted  by  Wickberg,  1998, 
p.  65).  The  association  between  humor  and  democratic  values  (as  opposed  to  the 
elitism  and  snobbery  of  wit)  made  humor  a  very  popular  concept  in  the  egalitarian 
culture  of  the  United  States,  particularly  after  the  Civil  War.  In  his  writings  on  the 
subject,  Sigmund  Freud,  like  most  of  his  contemporaries,  also  made  the  distinction 
between  humor  as  benevolent  and  psychologically  healthy  and  wit  as  aggressive  and 
of  questionable  psychological  value  (Freud,  1960  [1905]). 

Over  the  course  of  the  twentieth  century,  however,  the  distinction  between  wit 
and  humor  gradually  disappeared,  and  humor  came  to  predominate  as  the  umbrella 
term  for  all  things  laughable.  Humor  no  longer  represented  just  one  (benign)  way  of 
eliciting  laughter,  but  it  now  referred  to  all  sources  of  laughter,  including  more  aggres- 
sive forms  that  would  previously  have  been  described  as  wit.  At  the  same  time,  though, 
the  positive  and  socially  desirable  connotation  of  humor  was  retained,  and  all  laugh- 
ter therefore  came  to  be  seen  as  essentially  benevolent  and  sympathetic.  All  the  pos- 
itive characteristics  that  had  previously  been  ascribed  to  humor,  as  a  subspecies  of 
the  laughable  that  was  distinguished  from  wit,  were  now  seen  as  applicable  to  all 
laughter-eliciting  phenomena,  including  the  more  aggressive  forms  once  identified 

1      •     INTRODUCTION    TO    THE    PSYCHOLOGY    OF    HUMOR 

with  wit.  Although  laughter  itself  had  once  been  viewed  as  essentially  aggressive,  by 
the  early  twentieth  century,  many  theorists  began  to  suggest  that  it  almost  always  con- 
tains an  element  of  sympathy.  Even  those  who  still  subscribed  to  the  superiority  theory 
began  to  view  the  aggressive  aspects  of  laughter  as  tempered  in  some  way  by  sympa- 
thy or  playfulness  rather  than  being  truly  aggressive  and  malevolent  (cf.  Gruner, 

Thus,  from  the  seventeenth  to  the  twentieth  century,  popular  conceptions  of 
laughter  underwent  a  remarkable  transformation,  shifting  from  the  aggressive  antipa- 
thy of  superiority  theory,  to  the  neutrality  of  incongruity  theory,  to  the  view  that 
laughter  could  sometimes  be  sympathetic,  to  the  notion  that  sympathy  is  a  necessary 
condition  for  laughter  (Wickberg,  1998).  These  changing  views  were  also  reflected  in 
the  prevailing  social  norms.  As  recently  as  the  1860s,  it  was  considered  impolite  to 
laugh  in  public  in  the  United  States.  Even  in  the  early  twentieth  century,  some  spheres 
of  social  activity  (e.g.,  religion,  education,  and  politics)  were  considered  inappropri- 
ate for  humor  and  laughter.  Today,  of  course,  humor  and  laughter  are  not  only  con- 
sidered acceptable,  but  are  actively  encouraged  in  virtually  all  social  settings. 

Evolution  of  the  Concept  of  Sense  of  Humor 

Along  with  changes  in  the  meaning  of  humor  and  attitudes  toward  laughter,  the 
concept  of  "sense  of  humor"  has  also  evolved  over  the  past  two  centuries  (Wickberg, 
1998).  In  the  eighteenth  and  early  nineteenth  centuries,  British  philosophers  devel- 
oped the  notion  of  various  aesthetic  and  moral  "senses,"  which  were  seen  as  refined 
sensitivities  or  abilities  to  discern  or  judge  the  quality  of  certain  things.  Thus,  they 
spoke  of  a  sense  of  beauty,  a  sense  of  honor,  a  sense  of  decency,  moral  sense,  and 
common  sense.  The  "sense  of  the  ridiculous"  was  an  early  expression  to  describe  sen- 
sitivity to  laughable  things.  By  the  mid-nineteenth  century,  however,  this  had  been 
replaced  by  the  "sense  of  humor." 

Although  it  began  as  a  purely  descriptive  term,  the  sense  of  humor  quickly  became 
a  highly  valued  virtue,  taking  on  the  positive  connotations  that  were  associated  with 
humor  (as  opposed  to  wit)  during  that  time.  By  the  1870s,  the  sense  of  humor  acquired 
the  very  desirable  meaning  that  it  has  today,  referring  to  a  cardinal  virtue.  To  say  that 
someone  had  a  sense  of  humor  was  to  say  something  very  positive  about  his  or  her 
character.  Indeed,  a  sense  of  humor  came  to  be  one  of  the  most  important  charac- 
teristics a  person  could  have.  On  the  other  hand,  to  say  that  someone  lacked  a  sense 
of  humor  was  seen  as  one  of  the  worst  things  that  could  be  said  about  him  or  her.  No 
one  wanted  to  admit  that  they  did  not  have  a  sense  of  humor. 

Over  the  course  of  the  twentieth  century,  the  concept  of  sense  of  humor  contin- 
ued to  be  very  desirable,  but  also  became  increasingly  vague  and  undefined.  While  it 
always  retained  some  notion  of  the  ability  to  make  others  laugh  or  the  enjoyment  of 
amusement  and  laughter,  it  took  on  the  added  meaning  of  a  more  general  set  of  desir- 
able personality  characteristics.  What  it  meant  to  have  a  sense  of  humor  came  to  be 
defined  in  large  part  by  what  it  meant  not  to  have  one.  Saying  that  someone  lacked  a 
sense  of  humor  came  to  mean  that  he  or  she  was  excessively  serious,  fanatical,  or  ego- 
tistical, an  inflexible,  temperamental  extremist.  The  lack  of  a  sense  of  humor  was 


viewed  as  a  defining  characteristic  of  some  forms  of  mental  illness  (particularly  schiz- 
ophrenia), denoting  instability  and  paranoia  (Wickberg,  1998). 

By  the  1930s,  a  sense  of  humor  was  seen  by  many  psychologists  as  an  essential 
ingredient  of  mental  health.  For  example,  Gordon  Allport  (1961)  associated  a  sense 
of  humor  with  self-awareness,  insight,  and  tolerance,  and  viewed  it  as  a  characteris- 
tic of  the  mature  or  healthy  personality.  It  is  important  to  note,  however,  that  he  dis- 
tinguished between  this  mature  type  of  humor,  which  he  saw  as  quite  rare,  and  the 
less  healthy  "sense  of  the  comic,"  or  laughter  at  absurdities,  puns,  and  the  degrada- 
tion of  others,  which  he  saw  as  much  more  common.  In  sum,  having  a  sense  of  humor 
became  synonymous  with  being  stable  and  well-adjusted,  being  able  to  adapt  to  stress, 
being  temperate,  affable,  not  prone  to  anger,  and  easygoing. 

During  the  twentieth  century,  the  sense  of  humor  also  took  on  sociopolitical  con- 
notations and  was  used  for  propaganda  purposes.  In  the  United  States,  it  came  to  be 
seen  as  a  distinctly  American  virtue,  having  to  do  with  tolerance  and  democracy,  in 
contrast  to  those  living  in  dictatorships,  such  as  the  Germans  under  Nazism  or  the 
Russians  during  the  Communist  era,  who  were  thought  to  be  devoid  of  humor.  After 
the  tragic  events  of  September  1 1,  2001,  many  American  commentators  expressed  the 
opinion  that  Al  Qaeda  terrorists,  and  perhaps  even  all  Moslems,  lacked  a  sense  of 
humor  (despite  the  fact  that  videotapes  of  Osama  bin  Laden  clearly  showed  him  laugh- 
ing and  joking  with  his  comrades). 

Whereas  too  much  humor  in  the  nineteenth  century  was  considered  a  liability  in 
someone  wishing  to  run  for  office,  by  the  mid-twentieth  century  a  sense  of  humor 
became  a  necessary  characteristic  in  a  politician,  especially  someone  aspiring  to  be 
president.  A  popular  way  for  both  liberals  and  conservatives  to  disparage  one  another 
was  to  claim  that  they  lacked  a  sense  of  humor.  There  has  also  long  been  a  sexist 
aspect  to  the  concept,  which  was  viewed  as  an  essentially  masculine  characteristic. 
Until  quite  recently,  it  was  commonly  assumed  by  many  writers  that  women  gener- 
ally lacked  a  sense  of  humor  (Wickberg,  1998). 

The  positive  qualities  associated  with  the  vague  concept  of  sense  of  humor  as  a 
personality  trait  in  turn  fed  back  into  popular  connotations  of  humor  and  laughter 
more  generally.  By  the  end  of  the  twentieth  century,  humor  and  laughter  were  not 
only  seen  as  essentially  benevolent,  but  as  important  factors  in  mental  and  physical 
health.  This  view  gained  greater  prominence  following  the  publication  of  a  book  by 
Norman  Cousins  (1979),  a  well-known  magazine  editor,  describing  how  he  suppos- 
edly cured  himself  of  a  painful  and  debilitating  disease  by  means  of  hearty  laughter 
(along  with  massive  doses  of  vitamin  C).  This  book  appeared  at  a  time  of  growing 
disenchantment  with  traditional  Western  approaches  to  medicine,  and  fed  into  the 
rising  popularity  of  alternative  or  complementary  medicines. 

The  idea  that  humor  and  laughter  are  beneficial  for  one's  health,  bolstered  also 
by  psychoneuroimmunology  research  suggesting  links  between  emotions  and  immu- 
nity, led  to  the  growth  of  a  popular  "humor  and  health  movement"  among  many 
health  care  providers,  including  nurses,  physicians,  occupational  therapists,  social 
workers,  and  others.  Hospital  clowns  and  comedy  rooms  became  familiar  sights  in 
many  hospitals,  as  humor  and  laughter  came  to  be  viewed  as  a  method  of  speeding 
recovery  in  patients  suffering  from  chronic  pain,  cancer,  and  other  ailments.  These 

1      •     INTRODUCTION    TO    THE     PSYCHOLOGY    OF    HUMOR 

developments  in  health  care  also  contributed  to  increased  interest  in  applications  of 
humor  in  other  domains  including  business,  education,  and  psychotherapy.  Although 
this  humor  movement  has  always  been  seen  as  somewhat  on  the  fringes  rather  than 
the  mainstream,  it  has  attracted  considerable  attention  to  potential  benefits  of  humor 
and  laughter  in  the  popular  media  as  well  as  professional  journals. 

A  very  positive  view  of  humor  and  laughter  continues  to  predominate  in  our 
culture  today.  Although  there  is  some  recognition  that  humor  can  occasionally  be 
aggressive  or  inappropriate,  this  is  perceived  as  an  aberration;  "normal"  humor  is  sym- 
pathetic and  benevolent.  Aggression-based  theories  of  humor  are  generally  out  of 
favor  with  contemporary  humor  scholars,  having  been  replaced  by  more  benign 
cognition-based  incongruity  theories.  Thus,  over  the  past  century,  humor  has  taken 
on  a  broad  positive  connotation.  No  longer  does  it  merely  involve  the  perception  of 
incongruity,  funniness,  mirth,  and  laughter,  but  it  is  also  very  beneficial,  desirable,  and 
health-enhancing  (for  an  interesting  analysis  of  humor  in  contemporary  American 
society,  see  Lewis,  2006). 

This  brief  overview  of  the  changes  in  social  attitudes  and  conceptions  of  humor 
and  laughter  over  the  past  few  centuries  helps  us  to  put  our  current  assumptions 
and  biases  into  a  broader  historical  perspective.  Although  humor  and  laughter  are 
universal  in  humans  and  are  likely  a  product  of  natural  selection,  the  way  people  use 
and  express  them  in  a  given  time  and  place  is  strongly  influenced  by  cultural  norms, 
beliefs,  attitudes,  and  values.  Most  people  today  view  humor  as  essentially  positive, 
benevolent,  and  desirable,  and  it  is  strongly  encouraged  in  most  areas  of  life.  It  is 
easy  to  assume  that  these  attitudes  and  behavior  patterns  are  universal  and  have 
always  been  present  in  all  cultures.  Not  so  long  ago,  however,  laughter  in  our  own 
culture  was  seen  as  essentially  aggressive,  malevolent,  and  undesirable,  and  too  much 
laughter  was  frowned  upon.  The  existence  of  such  divergent  views  over  the  course  of 
a  relatively  brief  period  of  history  suggests  that  there  is  likely  an  element  of  truth  to 
both  extremes.  It  is  important  to  recognize  that  humor  can  be  used  in  ways  that  are 
aggressive  as  well  as  sympathetic,  and  can  involve  "laughing  at"  as  well  as  "laughing 

If  we  wish  to  take  a  scientific  approach  to  the  study  of  humor,  we  need  to  be  con- 
scious of  the  assumptions  and  biases  that  we  ourselves  have  absorbed  from  our  culture 
and  that  may  color  our  own  thinking.  As  much  as  possible,  we  must  try  to  approach 
the  subject  in  an  objective  manner,  using  empirical  research  methods  to  evaluate 
popular  beliefs  instead  of  merely  assuming  them  to  be  true.  In  our  theories  and 
research,  we  also  need  to  be  careful  to  distinguish  between  those  aspects  that  are 
universal  in  the  human  species  and  those  that  are  specific  to  particular  cultures  at 
particular  times. 


Psychology  is  often  defined  as  the  scientific  study  of  behavior.  The  concept  of 
behavior  in  this  definition  is  a  very  broad  one,  embracing  all  kinds  of  overt  actions, 


speech,  and  social  interactions,  as  well  as  less  easily  observed  processes  such  as 
thoughts,  feelings,  attitudes,  and  the  biological  mechanisms  underlying  all  of  these  in 
the  brain  and  nervous  system.  With  such  a  diverse  subject  matter,  psychology  is  a  very 
broad  discipline,  and  is  divided  into  a  number  of  subfields  focusing  on  particular 
aspects  of  behavior,  including  cognitive,  social,  biologic,  developmental,  clinical,  and 
so  on.  As  I  have  already  noted,  humor  touches  on  all  of  these  areas.  Psychologists 
view  themselves  as  scientists,  taking  an  empirical  and  predominantly  quantitative 
research  approach  to  test  theories  and  hypotheses  about  behavior.  Psychological 
research  methods  include  controlled  laboratory  experiments  in  which  one  variable  is 
manipulated  to  observe  its  effect  on  other  variables,  as  well  as  correlational  approaches 
in  which  variables  are  operationally  defined  and  quantified  and  their  association  across 
individuals  is  assessed. 

As  Jon  Roeckelein  (2002)  has  noted,  one  of  the  curiosities  of  the  psychology  of 
humor  is  that,  although  it  comprises  quite  a  sizable  research  literature,  it  has  gone 
largely  unnoticed  in  mainstream  psychology  up  to  now.  In  a  search  of  PsycINFO,  a 
database  of  psychology  publications,  using  the  keywords  humor,  humour,  laughter,  irony, 
and  other  closely  related  terms,  I  found  references  to  just  over  3400  peer-reviewed 
journal  articles  published  as  of  early  2006.  Despite  the  extensiveness  of  this  research 
literature,  however,  it  is  rarely  mentioned  in  undergraduate  textbooks  or  psychology 
reference  works.  Roeckelein  (2002)  examined  136  introductory  psychology  texts  pub- 
lished between  1885  and  1996,  and  found  only  three — all  published  before  1930 — 
that  made  any  reference  to  humor  or  related  topics.  Although  humor  is  occasionally 
mentioned  in  more  advanced  undergraduate  texts  devoted  to  particular  branches  of 
psychology  (e.g.,  social,  developmental),  the  treatment  is  usually  only  brief  and  super- 
ficial. Roeckelein  also  observed  that  this  topic  receives  only  rare  and  cursory  mention 
in  scholarly  reference  works  such  as  the  Annual  Review  of  Psychology.  The  most  recent 
two-volume  edition  of  The  Handbook  of  Social  Psychology  (Gilbert,  Fiske,  and  Lindzey, 
1998),  a  major  reference  work  for  social  psychologists  spanning  more  than  2000  pages, 
contains  only  a  single  brief  mention,  although  early  editions  contained  a  whole 
chapter  on  humor,  laughter,  and  play  (Berlyne,  1969;  Flugel,  1954). 

Two  main  reasons  have  been  suggested  for  this  general  neglect  of  humor  in  main- 
stream psychology  until  now.  First,  given  its  essentially  nonserious  nature  and  asso- 
ciation with  fun  and  mirth,  some  researchers  may  have  seen  it  as  too  frivolous  and 
unimportant  a  subject  for  serious  academic  study.  However,  as  Berlyne  (1969)  pointed 
out  more  than  35  years  ago,  the  apparent  frivolity  of  humor  is  a  good  reason  why  it 
should  receive  more,  rather  than  less,  research  attention  than  other  psychological 
behaviors  whose  adaptive  functions  are  easier  to  understand.  The  fact  that  all  human 
societies  expend  a  great  deal  of  time  and  energy  engaging  in  humor  and  laughter, 
while  the  purpose  of  this  activity  is  not  immediately  obvious,  makes  this  a  puzzle 
worthy  of  careful  and  systematic  study. 

Several  decades  of  research  effort  since  Berlyne's  time,  approaching  the  subject 
from  a  number  of  psychological  perspectives,  are  beginning  to  give  us  some  intrigu- 
ing answers  to  this  puzzle.  For  example,  recent  evolutionary  models  suggest  that 
humor  and  laughter  may  have  played  an  important  role  in  the  formation  and 

1      •     INTRODUCTION    TO    THE    PSYCHOLOGY    OF    HUMOR 

maintenance  of  social  groups  in  our  evolutionary  history,  and  therefore  have  inter- 
esting implications  for  our  understanding  of  human  verbal  and  nonverbal  communi- 
cation and  social  organization  (Gervais  and  Wilson,  2005;  Panksepp,  2000).  Thus,  the 
view  of  humor  as  too  frivolous  for  serious  study  is  becoming  increasingly  difficult  to 

Fortunately,  the  idea  that  psychologists  should  concentrate  only  on  "serious" 
topics  like  psychopathology  and  human  deficits  seems  to  be  waning  in  recent  years, 
as  demonstrated  by  such  developments  as  the  "positive  psychology"  movement,  with 
its  emphasis  on  the  study  of  human  strengths  and  positive  emotions  (Aspinwall  and 
Staudinger,  2003;  Seligman  and  Csikszentmihalyi,  2000).  One  would  hope  that  psy- 
chology has  moved  beyond  the  situation  of  30  years  ago  when  Walter  O'Connell 
(1976)  lamented  that  "anyone  embarking  upon  research  into  the  origins  and  devel- 
opment of  humor  will,  more  often  than  not,  be  seen  as  a  deviant  and  a  freak,  one  who 
does  not  take  psychology  seriously  enough"  (p.  316). 

A  second  possible  reason  for  the  general  neglect  of  humor,  suggested  by  Dixon 
(1980),  is  the  sheer  elusiveness  of  the  phenomena  under  investigation.  The  diversity 
of  stimuli  and  situations  that  evoke  mirth,  the  lack  of  a  precise  definition  of  the 
concept,  the  multiplicity  of  theories  that  have  been  proposed  to  account  for  it,  and 
the  difficulties  one  encounters  in  trying  to  capture  and  study  it  in  controlled  experi- 
ments in  the  laboratory  may  have  caused  researchers  to  shy  away  from  it  as  a  subject 
of  investigation. 

Once  again,  however,  the  complexity  and  elusiveness  of  the  topic  is  all  the  more 
reason  for  researchers  to  apply  their  efforts,  skills,  and  ingenuity  to  an  understanding 
of  it.  Furthermore,  as  I  will  try  to  demonstrate  in  this  book,  the  cumulative  efforts  of 
many  researchers  over  the  past  few  decades  have  brought  increasing  focus  to  the  field, 
generating  several  fairly  circumscribed  theories  with  testable  hypotheses  and  devel- 
oping practical  and  reliable  research  methods  for  investigating  them.  Thus,  although 
it  certainly  continues  to  pose  interesting  challenges  for  researchers  to  tackle,  humor 
no  longer  seems  to  be  such  an  intractable  topic  of  study. 

In  addition  to  psychology,  humor  is  also  a  topic  of  study  in  a  number  of  other 
disciplines,  including  anthropology,  biology,  computer  science,  linguistics,  literary  and 
cultural  studies,  neuroscience,  philosophy,  religious  studies,  and  sociology.  There  are 
even  scholarly  works  on  the  mathematics  of  humor  (Casadonte,  2003;  Paulos,  1980). 
The  International  Society  for  Humor  Studies  (ISHS)  is  a  multidisciplinary  organiza- 
tion of  humor  scholars  that  holds  annual  conferences  and  publishes  a  scholarly  journal 
entitled  Humor:  International  Journal  of  Humor  Research  (for  more  information,  see  the 
ISHS  website,  available  at  At  various  points  in  this  book,  I  will 
touch  on  some  of  the  contributions  of  these  other  disciplines  that  have  augmented 
the  research  of  psychologists. 

In  addition,  humor  is  a  topic  of  interest  to  many  professional  practitioners  in 
health  care  (e.g.,  physicians,  nurses,  occupational  and  physical  therapists),  counseling, 
social  work,  education,  and  business.  The  Association  for  Applied  and  Therapeutic 
Humor  (AATH)  is  a  professional  society  of  individuals  from  many  of  these  profes- 
sions who  are  interested  in  applications  of  humor  in  their  respective  fields  (available 


at  Besides  addressing  psychologists,  an  additional  purpose  of  this  book 
is  therefore  to  introduce  interested  individuals  from  these  other  academic  disciplines 
and  professions  to  the  methods,  theories,  and  empirical  findings  of  psychological 
research  on  humor. 


In  summary,  humor  is  a  universal  human  activity  that  most  people  experience 
many  times  over  the  course  of  a  typical  day  and  in  all  sorts  of  social  contexts.  There 
is  a  good  deal  of  evidence  suggesting  that  humor  and  laughter  have  an  evolutionary 
origin  and  therefore  confer  adaptive  benefits.  At  the  same  time,  there  are  obviously 
important  cultural  influences  on  the  way  humor  is  used  and  the  situations  that  are 
considered  appropriate  for  laughter.  From  a  psychological  perspective,  humor  is 
essentially  a  positive  emotion  called  mirth,  which  is  typically  elicited  in  social  con- 
texts by  a  cognitive  appraisal  process  involving  the  perception  of  playful,  nonserious 
incongruity,  and  which  is  expressed  by  the  facial  and  vocal  behavior  of  laughter.  In 
social  interactions,  humor  takes  on  many  different  forms,  including  canned  jokes, 
spontaneous  witticisms,  and  unintentionally  funny  utterances  and  actions. 

Psychological  functions  of  humor  include  the  cognitive  and  social  benefits  of  the 
positive  emotion  of  mirth,  and  its  uses  as  a  mode  of  social  communication  and  influ- 
ence, and  as  a  way  of  relieving  tension,  regulating  emotions,  and  coping  with  stress. 
Popular  conceptions  of  laughter  have  changed  dramatically  over  the  past  two  or  three 
centuries,  from  being  viewed  as  essentially  aggressive  and  somewhat  socially  inap- 
propriate to  being  seen  as  positive,  psychologically  and  physically  healthy,  and  socially 
desirable.  The  meaning  of  the  word  humor  has  also  evolved  from  a  narrow  focus  on 
benign  and  sympathetic  sources  of  mirth  distinguished  from  more  aggressive  types  of 
wit,  to  its  use  as  a  broad  umbrella  term  to  refer  to  all  sources  of  laughter.  Although 
humor  has  important  psychological  functions  and  touches  on  all  branches  of  psy- 
chology, and  there  is  a  sizable  and  growing  research  literature  on  the  topic,  main- 
stream psychology  has  paid  relatively  little  attention  to  it  until  now. 

In  the  next  two  chapters,  I  will  give  an  overview  of  early  research  in  the  psy- 
chology of  humor  that  was  conducted  prior  to  the  early  1980s.  My  review  of  this 
research  will  be  organized  around  five  major  theoretical  approaches  that  have  their 
roots  in  earlier  philosophical  conceptualizations  of  humor  and  laughter  and  have  been 
particularly  influential  in  psychological  research  over  the  years.  This  discussion  of  the- 
ories and  early  research  will  provide  a  background  for  the  remaining  chapters,  which 
will  focus  particularly  on  research  conducted  during  the  past  two  decades. 

In  Chapters  4  to  8,  I  will  explore  relevant  theories,  research  approaches,  and 
empirical  findings  in  the  study  of  humor  from  the  perspective  of  each  of  the  basic 
research  domains  of  psychology,  with  individual  chapters  devoted  to  cognitive,  social, 
biological,  personality,  and  developmental  psychology.  Chapters  9  and  10  will  focus 
on  research  examining  the  implications  of  humor  for  mental  and  physical  health,  cor- 
responding to  the  fields  of  clinical  and  health  psychology,  respectively.  Finally,  in 

1      •     INTRODUCTION    TO    THE    PSYCHOLOGY    OF    HUMOR 

Chapter  11,1  will  examine  theories  and  research  pertaining  to  potential  applications 
of  humor  in  several  applied  areas,  including  psychotherapy  and  counseling,  education, 
and  industrial-organizational  psychology.  By  the  end  of  the  book,  I  hope  it  will  be 
evident  that  the  study  of  humor  has  relevance  to  every  area  of  the  discipline. 

It  has  often  been  noted  that  the  academic  study  of  humor  is  not  in  itself  very 
funny,  and  that  nothing  kills  a  joke  like  analyzing  it.  As  McComas  (1923)  observed, 
"he  who  approaches  laughter  upon  science  bent  will  find  it  no  laughing  matter" 
(p.  45).  Journalists  reporting  on  the  annual  conferences  of  ISHS  often  take  delight  in 
pointing  out  the  apparent  irony  of  scholars  presenting  very  weighty  and  unfunny 
research  papers  on  the  subject  of  humor.  There  is  no  reason,  though,  why  a  scholarly 
work  on  humor  needs  to  be  funny  any  more  than  studies  of  human  sexuality  should 
be  titillating  or  depression  research  should  be  gloomy.  In  my  experience,  humor  schol- 
ars, while  taking  their  research  seriously,  tend  to  be  just  as  funny  as  anyone  else,  or 
perhaps  even  more  so,  in  their  everyday  lives. 

In  keeping  with  a  long-standing  tradition  of  scholarly  books  on  humor,  I  there- 
fore warn  the  reader  at  the  outset  that  you  are  not  likely  to  find  this  book  particularly 
funny.  However,  I  do  hope  you  will  find  it  interesting  and  informative,  and  that  it  will 
pique  your  curiosity  and  eagerness  to  engage  in  further  study  of  this  intriguing  topic. 


Theories  and  Early 

Research  I:  Psychoanalytic  and 

Superiority  Theories 

V  V  hat  are  the  mental  processes  involved 

in  "getting  a  joke"  or  perceiving  something  to  be  funny?  What  are  the  elements  that 
need  to  be  present  (i.e.,  necessary  and  sufficient  conditions)  for  humor  and  laughter 
to  occur?  Why  is  humor  so  enjoyable,  and  what  motivates  us  to  engage  in  it?  These 
sorts  of  questions  have  perplexed  thinkers  for  centuries,  and  numerous  theories  of 
humor  have  been  proposed  by  philosophers,  psychologists,  linguists,  and  other  theo- 
rists (for  more  detailed  discussion,  see  Keith-Spiegel,  1972;  Roeckelein,  2002).  Greig 
(1923)  listed  88  different  theories,  although  he  acknowledged  that  many  of  them  dif- 
fered from  one  another  in  only  minor  ways.  In  this  chapter  and  the  next,  I  will  focus 
on  five  general  theoretical  approaches  that  have  been  most  influential  in  psychologi- 
cal humor  research,  namely,  psychoanalytic,  superiority/disparagement,  arousal, 
incongruity,  and  reversal  theory.  The  first  two  will  be  reviewed  in  the  present  chapter, 
and  the  remaining  three  in  the  next  one. 

Theories  are  a  way  of  organizing  information  and  seeking  to  explain  phenomena 
in  a  parsimonious  way.  Theories  are  not  judged  so  much  on  the  basis  of  whether  they 
are  right  or  wrong,  but  on  the  basis  of  their  usefulness  in  accounting  for  phenomena 
and  generating  testable  hypotheses.  Thus,  good  theories  have  "heuristic"  value  in  sug- 
gesting directions  for  research.  A  good  theory  is  one  that  is  clearly  defined  and  well 
specified.  A  theory  should  define  the  conditions  that  are  both  necessary  and  sufficient 
for  a  given  phenomenon  to  occur.  A  good  theory  is  also  potentially  falsifiable.  In  other 



words,  it  makes  predictions  which,  if  proven  untrue,  require  a  rejection,  or  at  least  a 
modification,  of  the  theory. 

Unfortunately,  most  of  the  general  theories  of  humor  that  have  been  proposed 
do  not  meet  all  these  stringent  criteria.  They  often  use  rather  vaguely  defined  con- 
cepts, are  unable  to  specify  all  the  necessary  and  sufficient  conditions  for  humor,  and 
are  not  falsifiable,  since  a  way  can  typically  be  found  to  account  for  any  discrepant 
research  findings.  Nonetheless,  different  humor  theories  are  useful  for  suggesting  par- 
ticular avenues  for  research.  In  many  ways,  the  different  theories  are  like  the  six  blind 
men  and  the  elephant,  each  of  whom  felt  a  different  part  of  the  animal  and  came  away 
with  a  different  conclusion  about  what  an  elephant  is  like  (Berger,  1995).  Thus,  each 
theory  accounts  for  some  aspects  or  types  of  humor,  but  fails  to  give  a  complete 
picture.  To  gain  a  broad  understanding  of  humor,  we  need  to  combine  insights  from 
all  the  different  theories. 

My  review  of  theoretical  issues  in  these  two  chapters  is  also  an  opportunity  to 
provide  an  overview  of  the  early  psychological  humor  research  that  was  generated 
by  each  theory.  In  these  two  chapters  I  will  focus  particularly  on  research  conducted 
prior  to  the  early  1980s,  to  set  the  stage  for  the  discussion  of  more  recent  investiga- 
tions in  subsequent  chapters.  As  we  will  see,  interest  in  the  various  theoretical 
approaches  has  shifted  over  time,  with  different  theories  being  particularly  popular  at 
different  times.  This  changing  popularity  of  various  humor  theories  parallels  the  rise 
and  fall  of  broader  theoretical  approaches,  research  methodologies,  and  research 
topics  that  have  gone  in  and  out  of  fashion  throughout  the  history  of  psychology  as 
a  whole. 

Thus,  the  psychoanalytic  approach  to  humor  predominated  in  the  research  of  the 
1940s  and  1950s  and  had  largely  disappeared  by  the  1980s,  reflecting  the  rise  and  fall 
of  psychoanalytic  theory  during  that  time  in  psychology  as  a  whole.  In  the  1960s  and 
1970s,  interest  among  social  psychologists  in  the  roles  of  physiological  arousal  and 
cognitive  appraisal  processes  in  emotion  was  reflected  in  the  revival  of  arousal-based 
theories  of  humor.  The  popularity  of  research  on  aggression  around  the  same  time 
also  contributed  to  a  renewed  interest  in  superiority  theories,  which  view  humor  as  a 
form  of  aggression.  With  the  rise  of  cognitive  approaches  to  psychology  in  the  1970s 
(when  computers  had  become  widely  accessible  and  began  to  be  viewed  as  a  model 
of  human  information  processing),  cognitively  oriented  incongruity  theories  of  humor 
also  began  to  be  popular. 

Today,  with  the  cognitive  approach  dominating  all  areas  of  psychology  and  related 
disciplines,  cognitive  theories  of  humor  tend  to  predominate.  However,  as  we  will  see 
throughout  this  book,  many  of  the  themes  from  each  of  the  traditional  theories  con- 
tinue to  influence  research  today.  As  in  other  areas  of  contemporary  psychology,  in 
humor  research  we  are  seeing  a  movement  away  from  "grand  theories"  that  attempt 
to  explain  all  aspects  of  humor  toward  smaller  "mini-theories"  that  focus  on  more  cir- 
cumscribed aspects  (e.g.,  teasing,  irony).  Researchers  today  also  tend  to  draw  on  a 
variety  of  theoretical  influences  to  develop  their  models  and  hypotheses,  rather  than 
remaining  committed  to  a  single  traditional  theoretical  approach. 



Sigmund  Freud's  psychoanalytic  view  of  humor  was  by  far  the  most  influential 
theory  in  psychological  humor  research  during  the  first  half  of  the  twentieth  century, 
a  period  when  Freudian  theory  was  quite  prominent  in  psychology  as  a  whole.  Freud's 
general  theory  of  psychology  posited  that  each  of  us  embodies  a  seething  cauldron  of 
conflicting  motives  and  desires  (Freud,  1935).  Childish,  immature,  and  largely  un- 
conscious sexual  and  aggressive  (libidinal)  drives,  residing  in  the  id,  seek  instant  grat- 
ification and  expression  on  the  basis  of  the  pleasure  principle.  The  superego,  which 
incorporates  the  demands  and  dictates  of  society  as  embodied  in  the  internalized 
parents,  strongly  opposes  the  impulses  of  the  id.  The  ego,  functioning  on  the  reality 
principle,  attempts  to  find  some  adaptive  compromise  among  the  demands  of  the 
id,  the  superego,  and  the  real  world,  employing  a  variety  of  more  or  less  adaptive 
defense  mechanisms  to  protect  itself  from  the  otherwise  overwhelming  anxiety  that 
arises  from  these  conflicting  forces.  Early  in  his  writing  career,  Freud  turned  his  atten- 
tion to  the  role  of  humor  in  this  psychological  drama.  Freud's  theoretical  writings  on 
humor  are  contained  in  two  publications:  the  book  Jokes  and  Their  Relation  to  the 
Unconscious  (Freud,  1960  [1905]),  and  a  short  paper  simply  entitled  "Humour"  (Freud, 

Overview  of  the  Theory 

From  the  writer  and  popular  philosopher  Herbert  Spencer  (1860),  Freud  bor- 
rowed the  idea  that  the  purpose  of  laughter  is  to  release  excess  nervous  energy.  In  this 
view,  when  energy  that  has  built  up  in  the  nervous  system  is  no  longer  needed,  it  must 
be  released  in  some  way,  and  laughter  is  one  way  for  this  to  occur.  According  to  Freud, 
there  are  three  different  types  or  categories  of  laughter-related  phenomena:  (1)  wit 
or  jokes,  (2)  humor,  and  (3)  the  comic.  Each  of  these  involves  a  different  mechanism 
by  which  psychic  energy  is  saved  or  economized  and  is  consequently  dissipated  in  the 
form  of  laughter.  Jokes  (or  wit)  make  use  of  a  number  of  clever  cognitive  "jokework" 
techniques,  such  as  displacement,  condensation,  unification,  and  indirect  representa- 
tion, that  serve  as  a  kind  of  distraction  to  the  superego,  allowing  unconscious  aggres- 
sive and  sexual  impulses  arising  from  the  id  (which  would  normally  be  repressed)  to 
be  briefly  expressed  and  enjoyed.  The  inhibitory  energy  that  would  normally  be 
required  to  repress  these  libidinal  impulses  becomes  briefly  redundant  as  a  result  of 
the  joke,  and  it  is  this  energy  that  is  released  in  the  form  of  laughter.  Freud  referred 
to  the  release  of  libidinal  (sexual  or  aggressive)  drive  as  the  tendentious  element  of 
jokes,  while  the  cognitive  techniques  involved  in  the  jokework  were  called  the  non- 
tendentious  elements.  Thus,  according  to  Freud,  the  reason  we  enjoy  jokes  so  much  is 
that  they  enable  us  to  experience  for  a  moment  the  illicit  pleasure  derived  from 
releasing  some  of  our  primitive  sexual  and  aggressive  impulses.  We  do  not  feel  guilty 
about  this,  because  our  superego  (conscience)  is  temporarily  distracted  by  the  clever 


cognitive  trick  included  in  the  joke,  and  we  are  often  not  even  consciously  aware  of 
the  degree  to  which  the  joke  contains  such  aggressive  and  sexual  themes. 

These  ideas  can  be  illustrated  with  the  following  joke  (from  McGhee,  1979, 
p.  9): 

One  bachelor  asked  another,  "How  did  you  like  your  stay  at  the  nudist  camp?" 
"Well,"  he  answered,  "It  was  okay  after  a  while.  The  first  three  days  were  the  hardest." 

The  jokework  here  involves  the  cognitive  effort  required  to  detect  the  double  meaning 
of  the  last  word  in  the  joke,  which  can  refer  either  to  the  difficulty  of  the  experience 
or  to  the  man  getting  an  erection.  The  initial  interpretation  of  the  word  implies  a 
negative  connotation,  but  the  second  one  reveals  that  the  experience  was  actually  sex- 
ually arousing  and  enjoyable.  According  to  Freudian  theory,  this  clever  play  on  words 
diverts  our  attention  from  the  fact  that  the  joke  has  allowed  us  to  vicariously  enjoy 
the  erotic  pleasure  of  this  sexually  inexperienced  man  ("bachelor")  who  finds  himself 
surrounded  by  naked  women.  The  psychic  energy  that  our  conscience  would  nor- 
mally employ  to  suppress  such  illicit  pleasure  becomes  momentarily  redundant,  and 
it  is  therefore  diverted  to  fuel  the  activity  of  laughter. 

As  another  example,  consider  the  following  joke  (also  taken  from  McGhee,  1979, 
p.  9): 

Mr.  Brown:  "This  is  disgusting.  I  just  found  out  that  the  janitor  has  made  love  to  every  woman  in 

the  building  except  one." 
His  wife:  "Oh,  it  must  be  that  stuck-up  Mrs.  Johnson  on  the  third  floor." 

Here  the  jokework  involves  the  mental  process  of  pursuing  the  inference  of  the  wife's 
seemingly  off-hand  comment  to  its  logical  conclusion:  she  herself  has  had  a  sexual 
liaison  with  the  janitor.  Although  the  tendentious  element  in  this  joke  again  appears 
initially  to  be  a  sexual  one,  a  closer  examination  reveals  that  the  pleasure  for  the  lis- 
tener actually  derives  more  from  aggression  than  sex.  We  take  aggressive  delight  in 
laughing  at  the  cuckolding  of  the  hapless  husband,  as  well  as  the  stupidity  of  the  wife, 
who  reveals  her  unfaithfulness  to  her  husband  in  such  a  naive  manner,  and  will  likely 
soon  suffer  the  consequences  of  his  jealous  anger.  Again,  the  cleverness  of  the  logical 
processes  involved  in  interpreting  the  joke  enables  us  to  distract  our  attention  from 
the  fact  that  we  are  deriving  pleasure  from  other  people's  pain  and  stupidity,  an  activ- 
ity that  would  normally  cause  us  to  feel  somewhat  guilty. 

In  summary,  for  a  joke  to  be  effective,  there  are  two  important  requirements:  it 
must  involve  a  clever  use  of  jokework,  and  it  must  allow  for  the  expression  of  some 
repressed  sexual  or  aggressive  impulse.  Either  of  these  elements  alone  may  be  pleas- 
urable, but  neither  is  likely  to  be  viewed  as  truly  funny. 

Although  Freud  believed  that  most  jokes  involve  this  release  of  sexual  or  aggres- 
sive drives,  he  tentatively  suggested  that  there  may  be  some  non-aggressive  and  non- 
sexual  ("non-tendentious"  or  "innocent")  jokes  in  which  the  enjoyment  is  derived  only 
from  clever  cognitive  processes  (jokework)  that  enable  us  momentarily  to  regress  to 
less  logical  and  rational  (i.e.,  more  childish)  modes  of  thinking.  However,  some 
authors  such  as  Grotjahn  (1966)  and  Gruner  (1978)  have  pointed  out  that  Freud  was 


unable  to  provide  any  examples  of  such  innocent  jokes  (a  fact  that  Freud  himself 
acknowledged).  These  theorists  argued  that  this  is  because  no  such  jokes  actually  exist: 
all  jokes  are  tendentious. 

Freud's  second  category  of  laughter-related  phenomena,  which  was  the  only  one 
that  he  referred  to  as  humor,  occurs  in  stressful  or  aversive  situations  in  which  persons 
would  normally  experience  negative  emotions  such  as  fear,  sadness,  or  anger,  but  the 
perception  of  amusing  or  incongruous  elements  in  the  situation  provides  them  with 
an  altered  perspective  on  it  and  enables  them  to  avoid  experiencing  this  negative 
affect.  The  pleasure  of  humor  (in  this  restricted  meaning  of  the  word)  arises  from  the 
release  of  energy  that  would  have  been  associated  with  this  painful  emotion  but  has 
now  become  redundant.  For  example,  the  individual  who  is  able  to  "see  the  fanny 
side  of  things"  despite  having  recently  suffered  a  serious  financial  loss  would  be 
demonstrating  this  kind  of  humor.  This  type  of  humor  is  especially  seen  in  the  ability 
to  laugh  at  one's  own  foibles,  weaknesses,  and  social  blunders.  Thus,  humor  referred 
specifically  to  the  tension-release  function  of  mirth  and  laughter,  and  its  use  in  coping 
with  stress,  as  discussed  in  the  previous  chapter. 

It  is  important  to  note  that  Freud,  like  most  of  his  contemporaries,  drew  a  sharp 
distinction  between  humor  and  wit.  Humor  referred  to  a  benign  and  sympathetic 
amusement  at  the  ironical  aspects  of  the  misfortunes  of  life,  whereas  wit  (which  he 
identified  primarily  with  canned  jokes)  was  more  aggressive  and  less  clearly  psycho- 
logically healthy.  As  we  saw  in  the  previous  chapter,  since  Freud's  time  the  word  humor 
has  evolved  into  a  broad  umbrella  term  that  encompasses  all  types  of  laughter-evoking 
phenomena,  including  aggressive  teasing,  sexual  jokes,  and  slapstick  comedy,  as  well 
as  irony.  This  difference  in  terminology  can  be  very  confusing,  and  it  has  led  many 
researchers  and  theorists  to  confuse  Freud's  theory  of  wit  or  jokes  with  his  theory  of 
humor.  I  will  have  more  to  say  about  this  when  I  discuss  the  relation  between  humor 
and  mental  health  in  Chapter  9. 

According  to  Freud,  humor  (in  this  old-fashioned  narrow  sense)  is  one  of  a 
number  of  different  types  of  defense  mechanisms  that  enable  us  to  face  difficult  situ- 
ations without  becoming  overwhelmed  by  unpleasant  emotion.  Indeed,  according  to 
Freud,  humor  is  the  "highest  of  the  defense  mechanisms,"  since  it  enables  the  indi- 
vidual to  avoid  unpleasant  emotions  while  still  maintaining  a  realistic  view  of  the  sit- 
uation. To  Freud  (1928),  humor  is  very  beneficial: 

Like  wit  and  the  comic,  humor  has  in  it  a  liberating  element.  But  it  has  also  something  fine  and  ele- 
vating, which  is  lacking  in  the  other  two  ways  of  deriving  pleasure  from  intellectual  activity.  Obvi- 
ously, what  is  fine  about  it  is  the  triumph  of  narcissism,  the  ego's  victorious  assertion  of  its  own 
invulnerability.  It  refuses  to  be  hurt  by  the  arrows  of  reality  or  to  be  compelled  to  suffer.  It  insists 
that  it  is  impervious  to  wounds  dealt  by  the  outside  world,  in  fact,  that  these  are  merely  occasions 
for  affording  it  pleasure. 

Whereas  jokes  and  the  comic  are  commonly  enjoyed  by  nearly  everyone,  Freud  (1928, 
p.  220)  described  humor  as  "a  rare  and  precious  gift"  which  is  possessed  only  by  a  few 
lucky  people.  Interestingly,  Freud  (1928,  p.  220)  saw  humor  as  the  action  of  the 
parental  superego  attempting  to  comfort  and  reassure  the  anxious  ego,  asserting 


"Look  here!  This  is  all  this  seemingly  dangerous  world  amounts  to.  Child's  play — the 
very  thing  to  jest  about!"  This  is  a  much  more  positive  view  of  the  superego  than  the 
harsh,  punitive  taskmaster  that  is  typically  portrayed  in  Freudian  theory.  As  we  will 
see  in  Chapter  9,  Freud's  conception  of  humor  (in  this  narrow  sense)  is  closely  related 
to  contemporary  views  of  humor  as  a  way  of  coping  with  stress  and  regulating 

Whereas  wit  and  humor  are  verbal,  Freud's  third  category,  the  comic,  refers  to 
nonverbal  sources  of  mirth,  such  as  slapstick  comedy,  circus  clowns,  and  the  pompous 
person  slipping  on  the  banana  peel.  In  such  situations,  according  to  Freud,  the 
observer  mobilizes  a  certain  amount  of  mental  or  ideational  energy  in  anticipation  of 
what  is  expected  to  happen.  When  the  expected  does  not  occur,  this  mental  energy 
becomes  redundant  and  is  released  in  laughter.  Freud  suggested  that  the  comic 
involves  delighted  laughter  at  childish  behavior  in  oneself  or  others,  which  he 
described  as  "the  regained  lost  laughter  of  childhood"  (Freud,  1960  [1905],  p.  224). 
Comical  situations  may  also  contain  some  tendentious  elements,  allowing  for  the 
pleasurable  release  of  libidinal  energy.  The  person  slipping  on  the  banana  peel  is  a 
good  example.  The  fact  that  he  is  pompous  and  ostentatious  makes  the  scene  all  the 
more  amusing  because  it  permits  the  expression  of  some  aggressive  impulses.  It  would 
not  be  nearly  as  funny  if  the  mishap  occurred  to  a  small  child  or  to  a  person  for  whom 
we  felt  some  sympathy.  Thus,  like  wit,  the  comic  often  contains  at  least  a  tinge  of 

Empirical  Investigations 

A  variety  of  hypotheses  were  derived  from  Freudian  theory  (particularly  the 
theory  of  jokes  or  wit),  and  these  were  investigated  in  a  large  number  of  early  psy- 
chological studies.  Kline  (1977)  listed  several  hypotheses  having  to  do  with  individ- 
ual differences.  For  example,  based  on  Freudian  theory,  individuals  finding  aggressive 
or  sexual  jokes  funniest  would  be  expected  to  be  those  whose  aggression  or  sexuality 
is  normally  repressed.  Psychopaths  should  not  find  jokes  amusing,  since  they  have  no 
need  to  lift  their  repression  in  this  way.  Witty  people  should  tend  to  have  powerful 
unconscious  aggressive  drives  and  to  be  more  neurotic  than  the  normal  population. 
Moreover,  highly  repressed  people  should  prefer  jokes  with  more  complex  jokework 
rather  than  "simple"  jokes. 

In  the  1950s,  psychologist  Jacob  Levine  and  his  colleagues  published  a  number 
of  studies  investigating  these  sorts  of  hypotheses.  Levine  and  Redlich  (1955)  presented 
an  anxiety-reduction  theory  of  humor,  in  which  they  reconceptualized  Freud's  ideas 
about  the  release  of  psychic  energy  in  terms  of  relief  from  anxiety.  They  suggested 
that  jokes  that  are  perceived  by  an  individual  as  being  particularly  funny  touch  on 
anxiety-arousing  themes,  such  as  aggression  and  sexuality,  which  are  normally 
repressed  or  suppressed.  Thus,  a  joke  initially  evokes  feelings  of  anxiety  due  to  its 
libidinal  themes,  and  these  feelings  are  then  suddenly  reduced  by  the  punch  line.  The 
pleasure  of  a  joke  derives  from  this  sudden  reduction  in  anxiety,  and  the  greater  this 
reduction,  the  greater  the  pleasure  and  mirth.  If  the  anxiety  produced  by  the  joke  is 


too  great,  however,  the  punch  line  will  be  inadequate  for  reducing  it,  and  the  response 
will  be  one  of  aversion,  disgust,  shame,  or  even  horror.  On  the  other  hand,  if  the  indi- 
vidual experiences  no  arousal  of  anxiety  with  a  particular  joke,  the  response  will  be 
one  of  indifference. 

To  investigate  these  hypotheses,  Redlich,  Levine,  and  Sohler  (1951)  developed 
the  Mirth  Response  Test  as  a  method  of  assessing  the  types  of  humor  that  individu- 
als prefer  and  thereby  drawing  inferences  about  their  basic  needs  and  conflicts.  This 
test  consisted  of  a  series  of  36  cartoons  that  were  judged  to  tap  a  wide  range  of  aggres- 
sive and  sexual  themes.  Research  participants  were  presented  with  each  cartoon  indi- 
vidually, and  their  spontaneous  verbal  and  nonverbal  responses  were  noted.  Jokes  that 
elicited  mirth  and  enjoyment  were  assumed  to  contain  themes  relating  to  the  indi- 
vidual's underlying  needs  and  conflicts,  whereas  those  that  were  viewed  with  indif- 
ference presumably  contained  themes  that  were  irrelevant  to  the  individual.  Negative 
responses  to  jokes,  particularly  those  associated  with  a  failure  to  "get"  the  joke,  were 
seen  as  indicative  of  powerful  and  threatening  unresolved  needs  or  conflicts  in  the 

In  one  typical  study,  Levine  and  Abelson  (1959)  used  the  Mirth  Response  Test  to 
compare  hospitalized  psychiatric  patients  with  schizophrenia,  patients  with  anxiety 
disorders,  and  normal  controls.  The  cartoons  were  first  rated  by  a  number  of  psy- 
chiatrists for  the  degree  to  which  they  evoked  potentially  disturbing  themes  such  as 
overt  aggression  and  sexuality.  Among  the  psychiatric  patients  (who  presumably  had 
a  greater  number  of  unresolved  conflicts  and  repressed  impulses),  mirth  responses 
to  the  cartoons  were  strongly  negatively  related  to  these  clinician  ratings  of  dis- 
turbingness,  the  least  disturbing  cartoons  being  viewed  as  most  humorous  and  enjoy- 
able. In  contrast,  the  nonpatient  controls  showed  a  curvilinear  relationship  between 
their  mirth  responses  and  the  disturbingness  of  the  cartoons,  preferring  those 
that  were  moderately  disturbing  and  disliking  those  that  were  either  very  low  or  very 
high  on  this  dimension.  These  results  were  taken  to  be  supportive  of  psychoanalytic 

Another  early  humor  test  based  on  Freudian  theory  was  the  Wit  and  Humor 
Appreciation  Test  (WHAT)  developed  by  Walter  O'Connell  (1960).  This  test  was 
composed  of  30  jokes,  10  of  which  were  judged  by  a  panel  of  clinical  psychologists  to 
represent  hostile  wit,  10  nonsense  wit,  and  10  humor  (in  the  narrow  Freudian  sense). 
Research  participants  were  instructed  to  rate  the  degree  to  which  they  liked  or  dis- 
liked each  joke.  In  several  studies  with  this  test,  O'Connell  attempted  to  show  that 
better  adjusted,  less  hostile  individuals  are  more  likely  to  enjoy  humor  and  nonsense 
wit  than  hostile  wit.  However,  the  findings  were  only  partially  supportive  of  these 
hypotheses  (O'Connell,  1969,  1976). 

One  theoretical  difficulty  with  this  test  seems  to  be  that,  since  Freud  identified 
jokes  with  wit,  which  he  conceptualized  quite  differently  from  humor,  it  was  incon- 
sistent with  his  theory  to  attempt  to  assess  humor  using  jokes.  Furthermore,  as  we 
will  see  in  later  chapters,  the  degree  to  which  people  use  humor  in  healthy  versus 
unhealthy  ways  in  their  daily  lives  has  been  found  to  be  generally  unrelated  to  their 
enjoyment  of  different  types  of  jokes  or  cartoons.  Consequently,  joke  appreciation 


tests  do  not  seem  to  be  very  useful  for  assessing  these  mental  health-related  dimen- 
sions of  humor;  self-report  measures  developed  for  this  purpose  appear  to  have  greater 
validity  (e.g.,  R.  A.  Martin  et  al.,  2003). 

A  number  of  early  studies  examined  Freud's  hypothesis  that  the  enjoyment  of 
hostile  jokes  is  related  to  repressed  aggressive  drives.  Contrary  to  psychoanalytic 
theory,  however,  most  of  this  research  found  that  aggressive  humor  is  enjoyed  most 
by  individuals  who  express  hostility  and  aggression  openly  rather  than  by  those  who 
suppress  or  repress  it.  For  example,  Byrne  (1956)  presented  a  series  of  cartoons  depict- 
ing hostile  or  nonhostile  themes  to  male  psychiatric  patients  who  had  been  rated  by 
hospital  staff  as  either  overtly  hostile,  covertly  hostile  (passive-aggressive),  or  non- 
hostile  (compliant).  Overtly  and  covertly  hostile  patients,  as  compared  to  nonhostile 
ones,  rated  the  hostile  cartoons  as  funnier.  Thus,  individuals  who  exhibited  hostile 
behavior  in  their  interactions  with  others  were  more  likely  to  enjoy  cartoons  that 
reflected  hostile  themes.  Byrne  argued  that  these  results  contradicted  Freudian  theory 
and  were  more  consistent  with  behavioral  learning  theory.  According  to  learning 
theory,  aggressive  behavior  is  learned  through  positive  reinforcement,  and  aggressive 
individuals  would  therefore  be  expected  to  find  aggressive  humor  to  be  reinforcing 
and  enjoyable.  Similar  findings  were  obtained  by  Ullmann  and  Lim  (1962).  Taking  a 
somewhat  different  approach,  Epstein  and  Smith  (1956)  also  found  no  correlation 
between  the  degree  to  which  subjects  repress  hostility  and  their  enjoyment  of  car- 
toons containing  hostile  or  aggressive  themes. 

Other  investigators  examined  the  Freudian  hypothesis  that  individuals  who 
repress  their  sexual  drives  should  be  more  likely  to  enjoy  sexual  humor.  As  with  the 
research  on  aggressive  humor,  the  results  tended  to  contradict  psychoanalytic  theory, 
indicating  instead  that  subjects  who  are  less  sexually  inhibited  are  more  likely  to  enjoy 
sexual  jokes  and  cartoons.  For  example,  Ruch  and  Hehl  (1988)  found  that  sexual  jokes 
and  cartoons  were  rated  as  significantly  funnier  by  both  male  and  female  participants 
who  had  more  positive  attitudes  toward  sexuality,  greater  sexual  experience  and  enjoy- 
ment, higher  sexual  libido  and  excitement,  and  lower  prudishness  (cf.  also  Prerost, 
1983,  1984).  Interestingly,  more  sexually  active  individuals  were  found  to  enjoy  all 
types  of  humor,  regardless  of  content,  more  than  did  less  sexually  active  individuals. 
Thus,  contrary  to  Freudian  theory,  the  expression  and  enjoyment  of  sexual  activities, 
rather  than  the  repression  of  sexuality,  seems  to  be  associated  with  enjoyment  of 
humor  generally  and  sexual  content  humor  in  particular. 

A  study  by  Holmes  (1969)  bears  on  the  hypothesis  that  psychopaths  will  show 
less  enjoyment  of  humor  because  they  are  less  prone  to  inhibit  unacceptable  impulses. 
Contrary  to  psychoanalytic  predictions,  this  study  found  that  men  with  greater  psy- 
chopathic tendencies,  as  shown  by  higher  scores  on  the  psychopathic  deviate  (PD) 
scale  of  the  Minnesota  Multiphasic  Personality  Inventory  (MMPI),  were  quicker  at 
understanding  cartoons  than  were  less  psychopathic  men,  and  enjoyed  sexual  and 
hostile  cartoons  more  than  nonsense  cartoons.  Thus,  once  again,  the  expression  rather 
than  the  inhibition  of  impulses  seems  to  be  related  to  the  enjoyment  of  humor,  and 
particularly  humor  containing  sexual  and  aggressive  themes. 

However,  Rosenwald  (1964)  criticized  the  rationale  of  these  studies,  arguing  that 
overt  expression  of  an  impulse  such  as  aggression  does  not  necessarily  mean  that  there 


are  no  inhibitions  against  that  impulse.  He  suggested  that  enjoyment  of  a  joke  does 
not  simply  reflect  unconscious  conflicts  or  anxiety  associated  with  the  theme  of  the 
joke,  but  rather  the  degree  to  which  the  individual  is  able  to  relax  inhibitions  or 
defenses.  If  a  person  rigidifies  inhibitions  in  response  to  a  joke,  he  or  she  will  not  find 
it  amusing,  but  if  the  person  is  able  momentarily  to  release  inhibitory  energies,  the 
joke  will  be  found  to  be  funny.  In  support  of  these  hypotheses,  Rosenwald  found  that 
male  high  school  students  with  flexible  inhibitions  against  aggression — as  measured 
by  the  Thematic  Apperception  Test  (TAT) — enjoyed  hostile  humor  more  than  did 
either  those  with  overly  constricted  inhibitions  or  those  with  impulsivity  and  a  lack 
of  inhibitions.  These  findings  were  taken  to  be  supportive  of  Freudian  theory.  Overall, 
though,  most  of  the  correlational  studies  provided  little  support  for  the  hypothesis 
that  the  enjoyment  of  aggressive  and  sexual  humor  is  associated  with  repression  of 
the  corresponding  drives. 

Other  researchers  took  an  experimental  approach  to  test  various  hypotheses 
derived  from  psychoanalytic  theory.  Singer,  Gollob,  and  Levine  (1967)  hypothesized 
that,  when  people's  inhibitions  regarding  the  expression  of  aggression  are  increased, 
this  will  result  in  a  decreased  ability  to  enjoy  aggressive  humor,  but  will  not  af- 
fect their  enjoyment  of  nonaggressive  humor.  To  mobilize  research  participants' 
aggression-related  inhibitions,  they  had  a  group  of  subjects  study  drawings  by  Goya 
depicting  extreme  brutality  and  sadism,  while  control  subjects  viewed  benign  Goya 
works.  All  participants  then  rated  the  funniness  of  12  cartoons,  four  of  which  were 
considered  to  be  nonsense  cartoons,  four  portraying  mild  interpersonal  aggression, 
and  four  depicting  high  interpersonal  aggression.  As  predicted,  the  participants  who 
had  viewed  the  disturbing  art  (and  in  whom  inhibitions  against  aggression  had  pre- 
sumably been  mobilized)  rated  the  highly  aggressive  cartoons  as  significantly  less 
funny  in  comparison  to  the  control  subjects,  whereas  there  were  no  differences 
between  the  two  groups  in  their  enjoyment  of  the  nonsense  and  mildly  aggressive  car- 
toons. These  results  appeared  to  provide  support  for  the  Freudian  view  that  increased 
mobilization  of  inhibitions  concerning  aggression  will  result  in  decreased  enjoyment 
of  aggressive  humor. 

As  we  saw,  Freud  suggested  that  the  jokework  involved  in  successful  aggressive 
jokes  distracts  the  listeners  so  that  they  are  not  fully  aware  of  the  aggressive  content 
at  which  they  are  laughing.  Based  on  this  view,  Gollob  and  Levine  (1967)  hypothe- 
sized that  if  people  focus  their  attention  on  the  fact  that  humor  expresses  aggressive 
impulses,  their  inhibitions  will  be  mobilized  and  they  will  then  be  relatively  unable 
to  enjoy  the  humor.  They  had  a  group  of  female  subjects  make  ratings  of  the  funni- 
ness of  a  number  of  cartoons  before  and  after  focusing  their  attention  on  the  cartoon 
content  by  asking  them  to  explain  why  the  cartoons  were  funny.  As  predicted,  highly 
aggressive  cartoons  were  given  significantly  lower  ratings  on  the  post-test  than  were 
low-aggressive  or  nonsense  cartoons,  presumably  because  the  act  of  explaining  the 
cartoons  drew  attention  to  their  aggressiveness  and  thereby  circumvented  the  dis- 
tracting effects  of  the  clever  jokework.  These  results  were  viewed  as  supportive  of 
Freudian  theory. 

If  jokes  provide  an  outlet  for  sexual  and  aggressive  drives,  as  suggested  by  psy- 
choanalytic theory,  then  they  should  be  particularly  enjoyed  when  drives  associated 


with  the  relevant  themes  have  previously  been  activated.  Additionally,  these  jokes 
should  have  a  cathartic  effect,  reducing  the  levels  of  previously  aroused  drives.  A 
number  of  experiments  were  conducted  to  test  these  hypotheses.  For  example, 
Dworkin  and  Efran  (1967)  aroused  feelings  of  anger  (i.e.,  aggression)  in  male  under- 
graduate participants  by  having  an  experimenter  treat  them  in  a  very  rude  and  criti- 
cal manner.  The  participants  were  then  asked  to  listen  to  recordings  of  either  hostile 
or  nonhostile  humor  or  a  nonhumorous  tape,  and  to  rate  these  stimuli  for  funniness. 
A  separate  control  group  of  subjects  rated  the  humor  without  having  been  angered 
by  the  experimenter.  Mood  adjective  checklists  were  completed  before  and  after  the 
humor  rating  task. 

As  predicted,  participants  who  had  been  angered  rated  the  hostile  humor  as  sig- 
nificantly funnier  than  did  those  who  had  not  been  angered,  whereas  no  difference 
was  found  between  the  two  groups  in  their  ratings  of  the  nonhostile  humor.  In  addi- 
tion, exposure  to  both  types  of  humor  led  to  a  significant  reduction  in  self-reported 
feelings  of  hostility  and  anxiety  in  the  angered  subjects,  whereas  no  change  in  mood 
was  observed  in  the  angered  subjects  who  listened  to  the  nonhumorous  recordings. 
Thus,  activation  of  angry  feelings  led  to  greater  appreciation  for  hostile  (but  not  non- 
hostile)  humor,  while  both  hostile  and  nonhostile  humor  led  to  a  reduction  in  angry 
feelings.  The  latter  finding  was  only  partially  supportive  of  Freudian  theory,  since  this 
theory  would  predict  a  greater  reduction  in  anger  with  the  hostile  than  with  the  non- 
hostile  humor.  Subsequent  attempts  to  replicate  these  findings,  however,  were  mixed. 
Some  studies  similarly  found  increased  enjoyment  of  hostile  humor  in  research  par- 
ticipants following  exposure  to  a  hostility-arousing  situation  (e.g.,  Prerost  and  Brewer, 
1977;  Strickland,  1959),  but  these  findings  were  not  replicated  in  others  (e.g.,  Landy 
andMettee,  1969;  Singer,  1968). 

Other  experiments  examined  the  effects  of  humor  on  aggressive  behavior  (rather 
than  just  reported  feelings  and  humor  ratings)  following  exposure  to  a  hostility- 
arousing  situation.  Aggressive  behavior  was  assessed  in  a  variety  of  ways,  including 
the  severity  of  electric  shocks  that  subjects  administered  to  someone  who  had  previ- 
ously insulted  them  (under  the  guise  of  research  on  the  effects  of  electric  shocks  on 
learning).  Unfortunately,  these  experiments  also  yielded  inconsistent  results.  In 
support  of  Freudian  theory,  some  showed  that  previously  angered  subjects  were  less 
likely  to  behave  aggressively  toward  the  insulting  person  following  exposure  to  hostile 
as  opposed  to  nonhostile  humor  (e.g.,  Baron,  1978a;  Leak,  1974).  Others,  however, 
found  a  reduction  in  aggression  following  the  nonhostile  instead  of  the  hostile  humor 
(e.g.,  Baron  and  Ball,  1974).  Yet  other  experiments  showed  the  opposite  pattern  of 
effects,  with  an  increase  in  aggressive  behavior  occurring  after  exposure  to  hostile 
humor  (e.g.,  Baron,  1978b;  Berkowitz,  1970;  Mueller  and  Donnerstein,  1983).  Thus, 
evidence  for  cathartic  effects  of  hostile  humor  on  aggressive  behavior  is  inconclusive 
to  say  the  least. 

Other  researchers  examined  the  effects  of  sexual  arousal  on  the  enjoyment  of 
sexual  humor.  For  example,  Strickland  (1959)  had  male  research  participants  rate  the 
funniness  of  a  number  of  cartoons  containing  sexual,  hostile,  or  neutral  ("nonsense") 
themes  after  they  had  either  been  insulted  and  criticized  by  the  experimenter  (hostile 


group),  or  shown  a  series  of  photographs  of  nude  females  (sexual  group).  A  control 
group  of  participants  rated  the  cartoons  immediately  after  being  brought  into  the 
experimental  situation.  The  results  indicated  that,  as  predicted,  participants  who  had 
been  in  the  hostility-arousing  situation  gave  significantly  higher  funniness  ratings  for 
the  hostile  cartoons  than  for  the  sexual  or  nonsense  cartoons,  whereas  those  who  had 
been  in  the  sexually-arousing  situation  gave  significantly  higher  funniness  ratings  for 
the  sexual  cartoons  than  for  the  other  two  types  of  cartoons. 

However,  in  a  study  with  a  very  similar  design,  Byrne  (1961)  did  not  replicate 
these  findings.  Instead,  he  found  that  hostile  cartoons  were  rated  as  most  funny  by 
participants  in  all  three  conditions.  In  another  experiment,  Lamb  (1968)  found  that 
participants  exposed  to  sexually  arousing  photographs  showed  greater  appreciation 
for  all  types  of  cartoons  (hostile  and  neutral  as  well  as  sexual),  in  comparison  with 
those  who  were  not  sexually  aroused.  Thus,  as  with  the  aggression  research,  studies 
of  the  cathartic  effects  of  sexual  humor  on  sexual  arousal  produced  contradictory  and 
inconclusive  results. 

Whereas  the  preceding  research  investigated  hypotheses  derived  from  Freudian 
theory  by  focusing  on  participants'  appreciation  or  enjoyment  of  humorous  stimuli,  a 
study  conducted  by  Ofra  Nevo  and  Baruch  Nevo  (1983)  looked  at  humor  production. 
Male  high  school  students  were  presented  with  a  series  of  drawings  depicting  one 
person  behaving  in  a  frustrating  way  toward  another,  and  were  asked  to  generate 
verbal  responses  that  might  be  given  by  the  recipient  of  the  frustrating  behavior.  Half 
of  the  participants  were  instructed  to  try  to  make  their  responses  as  humorous  as  pos- 
sible, while  no  mention  of  humor  was  made  in  the  instructions  to  the  other  half. 
Experimenter  ratings  of  the  responses  revealed  that  the  humorous  responses,  com- 
pared to  the  nonhumorous  ones,  contained  significantly  more  aggression  and  sexual 
themes,  as  predicted  by  psychoanalytic  theory.  The  relatively  high  frequency  of  sexual 
content  was  especially  striking  in  view  of  the  fact  that  the  pictures  did  not  contain 
obvious  sexual  themes.  In  addition,  the  authors  noted  that  many  of  the  jokework  tech- 
niques described  by  Freud  were  observed  in  the  humorous  responses,  including  dis- 
placement, play  on  words,  absurdity  and  fantasy,  and  representation  by  the  opposite. 
The  authors  concluded  that  the  "subjects  applied  Freud  as  if  they  had  read  him!" 
(p.  192).  Similar  findings  were  also  reported  in  a  more  recent  study  by  Avner  Ziv  and 
Orit  Gadish  (1990)  in  which  male  and  female  participants  were  asked  to  generate 
either  humorous  or  nonhumorous  stories  in  response  to  TAT  pictures.  Once  again, 
the  humorous  stories,  compared  to  the  nonhumorous  ones,  contained  significantly 
more  aggressive  and  sexual  elements. 


As  this  brief  review  of  the  early  research  shows,  the  large  number  of  studies  con- 
ducted to  test  hypotheses  derived  from  the  psychoanalytic  theory  of  jokes  produced 
limited  and  inconsistent  supportive  evidence.  Although  there  was  some  evidence  that 
people  find  aggressive  jokes  less  funny  when  their  attention  is  drawn  to  the  aggres- 
sive nature  of  the  humor,  little  consistent  support  was  found  for  the  hypotheses  that 


individuals  who  habitually  repress  sexual  or  aggressive  drives  show  greater  enjoyment 
for  jokes  containing  such  themes;  that  arousal  of  sexual  and  aggressive  drives  leads  to 
increased  enjoyment  of  drive-related  jokes;  or  that  exposure  to  aggressive  or  sexual 
jokes  has  a  cathartic  effect,  decreasing  drive  arousal.  On  the  other  hand,  some  support 
for  Freudian  theory  was  found  in  research  showing  increased  aggressive  and  sexual 
themes  in  participants'  responses  when  they  are  instructed  to  generate  humor.  Apart 
from  the  inconsistency  of  the  research  evidence,  the  "hydraulic  model"  of  psychic 
energy  on  which  Freudian  theory  is  built,  viewing  laughter  as  a  way  of  "burning  off" 
excess  tension,  is  not  consistent  with  our  modern  understanding  of  the  nervous 
system.  Consequently,  the  psychoanalytic  theory  of  humor  (like  Freudian  theory  in 
general)  has  been  largely  abandoned  by  empirical  researchers  since  the  1980s, 
although  some  further  theoretical  work  has  appeared  in  the  psychoanalytic  literature 
(e.g.,  Sanville,  1999). 

It  is  important  to  note,  however,  that  most  of  this  early  research  focused  only  on 
Freud's  theory  of  jokes  (or  wit)  and  not  his  theory  of  humor  (in  the  old-fashioned 
sense).  Part  of  the  reason  for  this  was  methodological,  since  almost  all  the  research 
made  use  of  jokes  and  cartoons  (which  are  also  essentially  a  type  of  joke)  as  stimuli. 
Since  Freud's  theory  of  humor  does  not  apply  to  jokes,  these  sorts  of  stimuli  could 
not  be  used  to  test  hypotheses  about  humor.  As  we  will  see  in  Chapter  9,  more  recent 
research  evidence  for  the  role  of  humor  in  mental  health  and  coping  with  stress, 
although  generally  not  explicitly  inspired  by  Freudian  theory,  may  be  viewed  as 
support  for  some  of  Freud's  ideas  about  humor  (narrowly  defined)  as  an  adaptive 
defense  mechanism. 

It  is  also  worth  noting  that  the  concept  of  defense  mechanisms  is  one  psychoan- 
alytic idea  that  continues  to  be  widely  accepted  by  contemporary  psychologists  who 
might  not  consider  themselves  to  be  psychoanalytically  oriented.  The  idea  of  humor 
as  a  mature  or  healthy  defense  mechanism  (but  without  the  outdated  Freudian  notions 
of  energy  release  through  laughter)  continues  to  have  credibility  (Vaillant,  2000). 
Indeed,  the  current  version  of  the  Diagnostic  and  Statistical  Manual  (DSM-IV; 
American  Psychiatric  Association,  1994),  which  is  used  by  psychiatrists  and  clinical 
psychologists  to  diagnose  psychological  disorders,  contains  a  section  on  defense 
mechanisms  that  includes  humor  as  an  adaptive  or  mature  defense. 

A  limitation  of  Freud's  theory  is  that  it  does  not  consider  the  interpersonal  context 
and  social  functions  of  humor,  focusing  instead  on  dynamics  taking  place  within  the 
individual.  Thus,  jokes  were  seen  by  Freud  as  serving  a  primarily  intrapsychic  func- 
tion, enabling  the  individual  to  express  and  enjoy  libidinal  drives  that  are  normally 
repressed  by  one's  own  conscience.  As  we  will  see  in  later  chapters,  humor  scholars 
have  recently  begun  to  focus  more  on  the  social  aspects  of  humor,  noting  that  jokes 
and  other  types  of  humor  are  essentially  a  form  of  communication  between  people. 
Sociologist  Michael  Mulkay  (1988)  suggested  that  the  function  of  jokes  may  have 
more  to  do  with  the  social  expression  of  topics  that  are  considered  taboo  by  the  culture 
than  with  the  intrapsychic  release  of  drives.  He  noted  that  topics  like  sex  and  aggres- 
sion have  great  personal  relevance  to  most  people,  but  are  considered  inappropriate 
for  discussion  in  normal  discourse.  Humor  enables  people  to  communicate  sexual 


information,  attitudes,  and  emotions  in  a  form  that  is  more  socially  acceptable  because 
it  implies  that  the  speaker  is  "only  joking"  and  is  therefore  not  to  be  taken  seriously. 
Because  the  meaning  of  a  humorous  communication  is  inherently  ambiguous,  people 
can  get  away  with  saying  things  in  a  humorous  way  that  they  could  not  express  using 
a  more  serious  mode  of  communication. 

Similarly,  Eliot  Oring  (1994)  suggested  that,  in  addition  to  sex  and  aggression, 
humor  is  often  used  to  communicate  a  variety  of  topics  with  which  the  culture  has 
some  discomfort.  For  example,  he  suggested  that  contemporary  American  culture  is 
uncomfortable  with  the  expression  of  sentimental  feelings  like  affection,  tenderness, 
admiration,  and  sympathy,  and  humor  is  therefore  often  used  to  convey  these  sorts  of 
feelings  in  an  indirect  way.  Examples  of  this  use  of  humor  include  "roasts,"  in  which 
friends  and  coworkers  humorously  belittle  the  personality,  behaviors,  and  achieve- 
ments of  an  honored  guest,  and  humorous  greeting  cards,  in  which  insulting  messages 
are  used  to  indirectly  express  feelings  of  affection  (e.g.,  "I  wish  I  had  a  nickel  for  every 
time  I've  thought  of  you  ...  I'd  buy  some  gum").  Although  the  overt  message  appears 
to  be  negative,  the  humorous  manner  in  which  it  is  delivered  makes  it  apparent  that 
the  opposite,  more  affectionate  meaning  is  actually  the  intended  one.  Thus,  by  focus- 
ing on  the  inherently  interpersonal  nature  of  humor,  some  contemporary  theorists 
and  researchers  have  reconceptualized  Freud's  original  ideas  about  intrapsychic  func- 
tions of  humor  and  applied  them  to  an  understanding  of  its  social  functions. 

Although  psychoanalytic  theory  may  not  provide  a  completely  satisfactory 
account  of  humor  (in  the  broad,  modern  sense),  it  did  draw  attention  to  certain  aspects 
that  need  to  be  explained  in  any  comprehensive  theory.  In  particular,  we  note  the  pre- 
dominance of  aggressive  and  sexual  themes  in  most  (if  not  all)  jokes,  the  feelings  of 
emotional  pleasure  and  enjoyment  (i.e.,  mirth)  that  are  engendered  by  humor,  and 
the  strong  motivation  to  engage  in  it.  As  we  will  see  in  later  chapters,  these  aspects 
of  humor  continue  to  be  of  great  interest  to  theorists  and  researchers  today. 


As  we  have  seen,  Freud  viewed  aggression  as  an  important  aspect  of  jokes,  which 
he  identified  with  the  old  concept  of  wit.  Indeed,  there  is  abundant  evidence  that  much 
humor  (broadly  defined)  is  based  on  aggression  and  hostility.  The  aggressive  basis  of 
laughter  is  evident  in  ancient  writings.  Koestler  (1964)  noted  that,  of  29  references  to 
laughter  in  the  Old  Testament,  most  are  linked  with  scorn,  derision,  mockery,  or  con- 
tempt, and  only  two  are  "born  out  of  a  joyful  and  merry  heart"  (p.  53).  The  aggres- 
sion in  humor  can  be  blatant  or  subtle.  Herbert  Lefcourt  (2001)  gives  some  examples 
of  the  more  extremely  sadistic  or  heartless  forms  of  humor.  For  example,  Nazi  sol- 
diers during  World  War  II,  particularly  the  Gestapo,  were  known  to  laugh  mirthfully 
at  the  panicky  behavior  of  Jews  attempting  to  flee  from  them.  Anthropologist  Colin 
Turnbull  (1972)  described  how  members  of  a  nomadic  mountain  tribe  in  Africa, 
during  a  time  of  starvation  and  misery,  would  laugh  uproariously  at  the  suffering  of 
individuals  that  would  normally  be  expected  to  arouse  sympathy.  In  one  instance,  a 


group  of  people  laughed  loudly  at  the  spectacle  of  an  elderly  blind  woman  writhing 
weakly  at  the  bottom  of  a  canyon  after  losing  her  footing  on  a  steep  trail  and  falling 
over  a  cliff. 

The  aggressive  side  of  humor  is  also  evident  in  the  merciless  teasing  that  chil- 
dren often  inflict  on  one  another.  I  remember  well  a  regrettable  incident  from  my 
own  childhood  when  an  overweight  girl  in  the  fourth  grade  fell  to  the  floor  after  her 
chair  broke.  The  ensuing  raucous  laughter  and  teasing  from  the  rest  of  the  class  con- 
tinued for  several  days  afterwards.  As  every  child  knows,  being  laughed  at  can  be 
extremely  painful  and  humiliating.  At  a  milder  level,  a  great  many  of  the  jokes  that 
are  so  popular  in  our  culture  quite  obviously  involve  the  disparagement  of  others, 
including  members  of  either  sex  (but  most  often  women),  various  national  or  ethnic 
groups,  or  people  of  low  intelligence.  Sociologist  Christie  Davies  (1990a)  described 
how  people  of  every  country  and  region  make  jokes  about  members  of  a  particular 
nationality  or  subculture  who  are  considered  to  be  similar  yet  different  enough  from 
the  cultural  mainstream  to  be  objects  of  ridicule. 

Overview  of  the  Theories 

As  we  saw  in  Chapter  1,  a  long-standing  theoretical  approach  views  aggression 
of  some  sort  as  the  essential  characteristic  of  all  humor.  In  this  view,  humor  is  actu- 
ally a  form  of  aggression.  Theories  of  this  kind  have  been  referred  to  as  superiority, 
disparagement,  aggression,  or  degradation  theories.  This  is  the  oldest  approach  to 
humor,  dating  at  least  as  far  back  as  the  philosophers  Plato  and  Aristotle.  Plato 
(428-348  B.C.)  stated  that  laughter  originates  in  malice.  According  to  him,  we  laugh 
at  what  is  ridiculous  in  other  people,  feeling  delight  instead  of  pain  when  we  see  even 
our  friends  in  misfortune  (Plato  in  Philebus,  reprinted  in  Morreall,  1987).  Similarly, 
Aristotle  (348-322  B.C.)  saw  comedy  as  an  imitation  of  people  who  are  worse  than  the 
average  and  viewed  it  as  a  "species  of  the  ugly"  (in  Poetics,  reprinted  in  Morreall,  1987, 
p.  14).  According  to  Aristotle,  "people  who  carry  humor  to  excess  are  considered 
vulgar  buffoons.  They  try  to  be  funny  at  all  costs,  and  their  aim  is  more  to  raise  a 
laugh  than  to  speak  with  propriety  and  to  avoid  giving  pain  to  the  butt  of  their  jokes" 
(in  Nicomachean  Ethics,  reprinted  in  Morreall,  1987,  p.  15).  He  evidently  did  not  care 
much  for  it. 

The  writings  of  the  seventeenth-century  British  philosopher  Thomas  Hobbes 
(1588-1679)  further  reinforced  the  general  acceptance  of  the  superiority  view  for 
several  centuries.  According  to  Hobbes,  "the  passion  of  laughter  is  nothing  else  but 
sudden  glory  arising  from  some  sudden  conception  of  some  eminency  in  ourselves, 
by  comparison  with  the  infirmity  of  others,  or  with  our  own  formerly ...  It  is  no 
wonder  therefore  that  men  take  heinously  to  be  laughed  at  or  derided,  that  is,  tri- 
umphed over."  (in  Human  Nature,  reprinted  in  Morreall,  1987,  p.  20).  Thus,  humor 
is  thought  to  result  from  a  sense  of  superiority  derived  from  the  disparagement  of 
another  person  or  of  one's  own  past  blunders  or  foolishness.  Elements  of  the  superi- 
ority view  continue  to  be  seen  in  some  theories  of  humor  proposed  over  the  past 
century  (e.g.,  Bergson,  1911;  Leacock,  1935;  Ludovici,  1933;  Rapp,  1951). 


The  most  outspoken  contemporary  advocate  of  this  approach  is  Charles  Gruner, 
a  professor  of  speech  communication  at  the  University  of  Georgia  (Gruner,  1978, 
1997).  Gruner  views  humor  as  "playful  aggression."  It  is  not  "real"  aggression,  in  the 
sense  that  it  does  not  involve  physically  attacking  and  injuring  people;  rather,  it  is 
more  like  the  play  fighting  of  children  and  young  animals.  Thus,  Gruner  emphasizes 
the  idea  that  humor  is  a  form  of  play.  In  particular,  the  type  of  play  he  has  in  mind  is 
a  game,  competition,  or  contest,  where  there  are  winners  and  losers.  Gruner  suggests 
that  the  enjoyment  of  humor  is  akin  to  the  jubilant,  triumphant  feelings  one  has  after 
suddenly  winning  a  very  close  game  after  a  long  and  difficult  struggle.  "Successful 
humor,"  stated  Gruner,  "like  enjoying  success  in  sports  and  games  (including  the 
games  of  life),  must  include  'winning  ("getting  what  we  want"),  and  sudden  perception 
of  that  winning"  (Gruner,  1997,  p.  9,  emphasis  in  original). 

Gruner  based  his  theory  on  an  evolutionary  view  in  which  the  propensity  for  com- 
petitiveness and  aggressiveness  is  the  main  characteristic  that  enabled  humans  to 
survive  and  flourish.  Following  Rapp's  (1951)  phylogenetic  (i.e.,  evolutionary)  theory, 
Gruner  (1978)  suggested  that  laughter  originated  in  the  "roar  of  triumph"  following 
a  hard-fought  battle  (typically  occurring  between  males).  During  the  course  of  a  phys- 
ical struggle  with  another  person,  much  emotional  and  physical  energy  is  built  up,  as 
adrenaline  is  pumped  into  the  bloodstream.  When  the  fight  ends  suddenly,  the  winner 
must  dispel  this  excess  tension,  and  he  does  so  through  laughter:  he  "bares  his  teeth, 
pumps  his  shoulders,  and  chops  up  his  breath  into  grunts  and  moans,  with  appropri- 
ate grimaces"  (p.  43).  Thus,  laughter  serves  the  physiological  function  of  rapidly 
restoring  homeostasis,  as  well  as  the  psychological  function  of  signaling  victory  over 
the  enemy.  (The  loser,  meanwhile,  expels  his  excess  energy  by  weeping.) 

According  to  Gruner,  "the  many  generations  of  men  who  responded  to  their 
sudden  victories  in  violent  encounters  with  roars  of  triumph,  over  hundreds  of  thou- 
sands of  years,  wore  a  groove,  a  riverbed,  into  the  collective  human  unconscious" 
(p.  52),  and  this  continues  to  be  the  basis  of  laughter  to  the  present  day.  This  early 
precursor  of  laughter  evolved  into  our  modern-day  humor.  With  the  evolution  of 
language  in  the  context  of  communal  living,  people  were  able  to  begin  poking  fun 
at  others  with  words,  rather  than  relying  only  on  physical  aggression.  Soon  people 
could  use  language  to  ridicule  anyone  who  appeared  inferior,  such  as  those  with  a 
physical  or  mental  defect.  Today,  this  form  of  humor  is  evident  in  slapstick  comedy 
and  practical  jokes,  laughter  at  others'  clumsiness  and  verbal  mistakes,  laughter  at 
"dumb  blond"  jokes,  and  any  jokes  that  make  fun  of  individuals  from  other  ethnic 

Those  who  disagree  with  this  aggression  theory  of  humor  might  point  to  simple 
riddles  and  puns  as  forms  of  humor  to  which  it  does  not  seem  to  apply.  These  kinds 
of  humor  merely  involve  a  play  on  words  and  seem  to  be  completely  devoid  of  aggres- 
sion and  hostility.  However,  according  to  Gruner,  riddles  and  puns  have  their  origins 
in  ancient  "duels  of  wits"  in  which  people  attempted  to  display  their  intellectual  supe- 
riority over  others  by  means  of  their  facility  with  words.  Still  today,  creating  puns 
is  a  way  of  "beating"  others  in  conversation.  This  is  why  people  respond  to  puns 
with  groans,  which  are  seen  as  an  admission  of  defeat.  The  person  who  constantly 


interrupts  the  flow  of  conversation  with  puns  is  often  perceived  by  others  as  disrup- 
tive, frustrating,  and  distracting,  and  puns  are  seen  as  a  way  of  controlling  social  inter- 
actions. The  competitive  nature  of  punning  is  particularly  evident  in  "punning  duels," 
in  which  two  people  attempt  to  outdo  one  another  with  exchanges  of  witty  wordplay. 
Gruner  (1997,  p.  136)  gave  the  following  example: 

Bob:  The  cops  arrested  a  streaker  yesterday. 

Rob:  Could  they  pin  anything  on  him? 

Bob:  Naw.  The  guy  claimed  he  was  hauled  in  on  a  bum  wrap. 

Rob:  You'd  think  the  case  was  supported  by  the  bare  facts. 

Bob:  We  can  probably  hear  more  about  the  case  tonight  on  the  TV  nudecast. 

Rob:  Tomorrow's  nudespaper  might  have  more  details. 

Puns  in  everyday  conversation  may  be  a  way  of  "defeating"  the  listener,  but 
canned  jokes  in  which  the  punch  line  is  based  on  a  pun  are  seen  as  a  way  of  enabling 
the  listener  to  share  feelings  of  mastery  and  superiority  along  with  the  joke-teller.  The 
ability  to  "get  the  joke"  gives  the  listener  a  feeling  of  superiority  and  victory,  pre- 
sumably over  hypothetical  others  who  might  not  be  able  to  understand  it,  perhaps 
due  to  their  lower  intelligence.  Thus,  according  to  Gruner,  all  jokes,  no  matter  how 
seemingly  innocent,  contain  a  contest,  a  winner,  and  a  loser. 

Gruner  (1997)  analyzed  a  large  number  of  examples  of  different  types  of  jokes, 
demonstrating  how  each  of  them  may  be  viewed  as  an  expression  of  playful  aggres- 
sion. "To  understand  a  piece  of  humorous  material,"  stated  Gruner  (1978,  p.  14),  "it 
is  necessary  only  to  find  out  who  is  ridiculed,  how,  and  why."  Thus,  he  finds  aggres- 
sion in  jokes  about  death,  destruction,  or  disaster;  "sick"  jokes  (such  as  "dead  baby" 
jokes  and  those  that  followed  the  Challenger  space  shuttle  disaster);  slapstick  comedy 
and  children's  television  cartoons;  practical  jokes;  ethnic  and  sexist  jokes;  and  so  on. 
Whereas  Freud  saw  sexuality  as  a  possible  joke  mechanism  that  can  operate  without 
any  aggression,  Gruner  argued  forcefully  that  all  sexual,  sexist,  and  scatological 
("toilet")  humor  is  based  on  aggression.  According  to  Gruner  (1997,  p.  109),  "'dirty' 
jokes  differ  from  'clean'  jokes  only  in  subject  matter  and  language,  not  in  form  or 
technique;  both  'types'  of  jokes  follow  the  formula  of  a  contest,  resulting  in  both  a 
winner  and  a  loser."  Gruner  claimed  that  he  has  never  encountered  a  joke  or  other 
laughter-provoking  event  that  cannot  be  explained  by  application  of  his  theory,  and 
at  the  end  of  his  1997  book  he  challenged  the  reader  to  try  to  find  one. 

What  about  all  the  "innocent"  or  "nonsense"  jokes  and  cartoons  that  were  used 
in  much  of  the  psychoanalytically  inspired  research,  reviewed  earlier,  comparing  the 
effects  of  hostile  versus  nonhostile  humor?  Although  he  acknowledged  that  the 
aggression  in  humor  can  sometimes  be  quite  muted  and  subtle,  Gruner  (1997)  argued 
forcefully  that  even  the  most  seemingly  innocuous  jokes  contain  some  element  of 
aggression.  Here  his  analyses  sometimes  seem  a  little  forced.  For  example,  he  dis- 
cussed a  published  cartoon  in  which  "two  tipplers  coming  home  from  a  wild  night  on 
the  town  are  gaily  staggering  up  and  down  walls,  as  well  as  back  and  forth  across  the 
sidewalk  and  street"  (p.  162).  Although  this  cartoon  seems  to  be  playing  in  a  purely 
innocent  way  with  incongruity  and  absurdity,  Gruner  interpreted  it  as  ridiculing 


drunkenness:  drunks  are  so  oblivious  to  reality  that  they  don't  realize  that  defying 
gravity  is  impossible  and  don't  stop  to  think  about  the  dangers  involved.  In  another 
example,  a  cartoon  shows  a  plumber  plugging  the  hole  in  a  water  pipe  with  his  finger, 
as  water  pours  out  his  ear.  Again,  this  seems  to  be  merely  an  innocent  and  whimsical 
exercise  in  absurdity,  but  Gruner  suggested  that  the  cartoon  causes  the  viewer  to  laugh 
at  the  damage  being  done  to  the  plumber's  brain  cells  by  the  water  going  through  his 
head.  Although  many  of  Gruner's  analyses  seem  quite  convincing  about  the  aggres- 
sive basis  of  humor,  some  examples  such  as  these  seem  rather  contrived. 

What  about  self-deprecatory  humor?  How  can  laughing  at  oneself  be  explained 
in  terms  of  superiority  theory?  Like  Hobbes,  Gruner  responds  that  we  can  laugh  at 
our  own  past  stupidities  and  failings,  feeling  superiority  over  the  person  we  once  were 
in  the  past.  Furthermore,  even  in  the  present,  one  part  of  ourselves  can  laugh  at 
another  part.  For  example,  when  I  am  feeling  lazy,  I  can  laugh  at  the  part  of  me  that 
is  overly  ambitious,  and  when  I  am  in  an  ambitious  mood  I  can  laugh  at  my  lazy  self. 
We  all  have  multiple  roles,  mood  states,  and  conflicting  personality  characteristics, 
and  a  sense  of  humor  is  what  keeps  these  many  varied  aspects  of  ourselves  in  balance. 
People  with  no  sense  of  humor  are  people  who  are  rigid  and  unidimensional,  unable 
to  see  anything  funny  about  themselves  or  their  beliefs.  Thus,  the  disparagement  at 
the  root  of  humor  can  be  directed  at  oneself  in  a  healthy  manner. 

Implications  of  Superiority/Disparagement  Theories 

As  we  saw  in  Chapter  1,  the  extremely  positive  view  of  humor  held  by  most  people 
today  has  made  the  superiority  theory  very  unpopular  because  of  the  negative  way  it 
seems  to  portray  humor.  Although  they  might  acknowledge  that  some  humor  is  occa- 
sionally aggressive,  hostile,  and  even  cruel,  most  people  today  wish  to  believe  that 
most  humor  (perhaps  particularly  their  own!)  is  free  of  aggression,  nonhostile,  sym- 
pathetic, friendly,  and  healthy.  Psychotherapists,  educators,  and  business  consultants 
who  promote  humor  for  its  presumed  beneficial  qualities  (which  I  will  discuss  in 
Chapter  1 1)  often  draw  a  distinction  between  "laughing  at"  and  "laughing  with."  They 
may  espouse  "political  correctness"  views,  regarding  ethnic,  racist,  and  sexist  humor, 
like  smoking  in  restaurants,  as  offensive  and  inappropriate  in  polite  society.  Instead, 
they  seek  to  promote  the  use  of  more  affirming  and  caring  types  of  humor.  However, 
Gruner  argues  that  such  people  are  simply  deluding  themselves,  denying  the  reality 
of  the  true  source  of  pleasure  underlying  their  enjoyment  of  humor.  If  we  try  to 
eliminate  aggression  from  humor,  according  to  Gruner,  we  will  eliminate  humor 

At  the  same  time,  Gruner  denies  that  this  view  of  humor  actually  paints  a  nega- 
tive picture  of  human  nature.  He  emphasizes  that  the  aggression  involved  in  humor 
is  just  play,  a  game  that  should  not  be  taken  seriously  and  is  not  intended  to  inflict 
actual  harm.  Individuals  who  tell  ethnic  jokes  do  not  necessarily  believe  the  stereo- 
types conveyed  in  their  jokes.  Gruner  (1997)  stated  that  "a  stereotype  is  merely  a  very 
handy  kind  of  shorthand  to  provide  the  essential  framework  for  understanding  the 
content  of  a  joke"  (p.  99).  Of  course,  some  people  who  are  truly  hostile,  racist,  sexist, 


or  anti-Semitic  might  use  such  jokes  as  a  way  of  expressing  their  hostility.  But  such 
people  will  likely  express  their  attitudes  in  more  direct  and  openly  hostile  ways  as  well. 
This  does  not  mean  that  all  people  who  enjoy  such  jokes  are  racist  or  sexist.  A  similar 
view  is  expressed  by  sociologist  Christie  Davies,  who  has  argued,  for  example,  that 
jokes  making  ran  of  "Jewish  American  princesses"  ( JAPs)  are  not  really  based  on  anti- 
Semitism,  but  are  actually  affirming  of  the  qualities  of  Jewish  culture  (C.  Davies, 
1990b).  Although  Davies  rejected  the  superiority/aggression  theory  of  humor  because 
it  seems  to  confuse  the  playful  aggression  of  humor  with  "real-world"  aggression 
(C.  Davies,  1990a,  p.  326),  Gruner  argued  that  these  objections  reveal  a  misunder- 
standing of  his  theory. 

The  more  positive  perspective  on  superiority/disparagement  theories  espoused 
by  Gruner  (as  opposed  to  the  negative  views  held  by  more  traditional  superiority  the- 
orists) has  also  allowed  some  authors  to  emphasize  the  value  of  humor  for  self-esteem, 
feelings  of  competence,  and  personal  well-being  generally.  Rather  than  focusing  on 
the  hostile,  sarcastic,  and  derisive  aspects  of  humor,  these  views  emphasize  the  posi- 
tive feelings  of  well-being  and  efficacy,  and  the  sense  of  liberation  and  freedom  from 
threat  experienced  when  one  is  able  to  poke  ran  at  other  people  or  situations  that 
would  normally  be  viewed  as  threatening  or  constrictive.  As  Holland  (1982,  p.  45) 
pointed  out,  "we  can  state  the  disproportion  the  other  way  around,  calling  the  purpose 
of  laughter  not  so  much  a  glorifying  of  the  self  as  a  minimizing  of  the  distresses  men- 
acing the  self."  Similarly,  Kallen  (1968,  p.  59)  wrote,  "I  laugh  at  that  which  has  endan- 
gered or  degraded  or  has  fought  to  suppress,  enslave,  or  destroy  what  I  cherish  and 
has  failed.  My  laughter  signalizes  its  failure  and  my  own  liberation." 

Similar  views  have  been  expressed  by  authors  taking  an  existential  approach  to 
humor,  who  emphasize  that  it  provides  one  with  a  sense  of  liberation  or  freedom  from 
the  constraints  of  life.  For  example,  Knox  (1951,  p.  543)  defined  humor  as  "playful 
chaos  in  a  serious  world,"  and  stated  that  "humor  is  a  species  of  liberation,  and  it  is 
the  liberation  that  comes  to  us  as  we  experience  the  singular  delight  of  beholding 
chaos  that  is  playful  and  make-believe  in  a  world  that  is  serious  and  coercive"  (p.  541). 
Similarly,  Mindess  (1971)  noted  that  our  social  roles  require  us  to  suppress  and  deny 
many  of  our  impulses  and  desires  and  to  conform  to  our  surroundings  and  the  expec- 
tations placed  on  us  by  others.  Although  these  constraints  and  routines  are  necessary 
for  survival  in  our  group-based  existence,  they  also  lead  to  feelings  of  self-alienation 
and  loss  of  spontaneity  and  authenticity.  Humor,  according  to  Mindess,  is  a  means  of 
coping  with  this  paradox,  enabling  one  to  gain  a  sense  of  freedom,  mastery,  and  self- 
respect  while  continuing  to  live  within  the  social  constraints  of  human  life.  In  humor 
we  can  temporarily  break  all  the  rules,  playing  with  reality  in  a  way  that  denies  the 
normal  physical  and  social  constraints  and  ignores  the  usual  consequences  of  behav- 
ior (see  also  Svebak,  1974b,  for  a  similar  view). 

This  coping  aspect  of  aggressive  humor  is  also  evident  in  the  "gallows  humor" 
described  by  Obrdlik  (1942)  as  a  form  of  joking  used  by  people  in  oppressive  regimes, 
such  as  Nazi-occupied  nations  during  World  War  II.  The  term  gallows  humor  comes 
from  Freud's  (1960  [1905])  description  of  condemned  prisoners  making  lighthearted 
jokes  on  their  way  to  the  gallows  (e.g.,  the  prisoner  who,  when  offered  a  last  cigarette 


before  his  execution,  says,  "No  thanks,  I'm  trying  to  quit").  It  has  come  to  be  used  to 
refer  to  aggressive  forms  of  humor  with  a  grotesque  or  macabre  character  ("black 
humor")  used  as  a  means  of  maintaining  one's  sanity  in  seemingly  hopeless  or 
extremely  harrowing  situations.  By  poking  fun  at  the  ineptness  and  stupidity  of 
oppressors,  gallows  humor  can  be  a  subversive  activity  that  allows  one  to  gain  a  sense 
of  freedom  from  their  power,  a  refusal  to  be  completely  subjugated  by  them,  despite 
their  apparent  domination.  Such  forms  of  humor  were  also  very  popular  in  the  former 
Soviet  Union  and  Eastern  European  countries  during  the  Communist  era  (Raskin, 

Along  with  Freud's  concept  of  humor  (in  the  narrow  sense)  as  a  defense  mecha- 
nism, the  superiority  approach  provides  a  basis  for  contemporary  views  of  humor  as 
a  way  of  coping  with  stress  in  daily  life  (which  I  will  discuss  in  Chapter  9).  As  a  defense 
mechanism  (a  la  Freud),  humor  enables  us  to  protect  ourselves  from  painful  emotions 
associated  with  adverse  circumstances.  As  a  way  of  asserting  our  superiority  (a  la 
Gruner),  humor  is  a  way  of  refusing  to  be  overcome  by  the  people  and  situations, 
large  and  small,  which  threaten  our  well-being.  It  must  be  recognized,  though,  that 
while  such  aggressive  uses  of  humor  in  coping  may  make  us  feel  better,  when  directed 
at  spouses,  close  friends,  and  family  members,  they  can  have  a  negative  effect  on  the 

Humor  also  enables  us  to  avoid  becoming  too  emotionally  involved  in  the  dis- 
tress and  problems  of  others.  McDougall  (1903,  1922)  viewed  humor  as  a  sort  of 
"emotional  anesthesia,"  that  enables  us  to  avoid  feeling  too  much  sympathy  for  others, 
which  might  otherwise  overwhelm  us.  He  believed  that  humor  and  laughter  evolved 
in  humans  as  an  antidote  to  sympathy,  a  protective  reaction  that  shields  us  from  the 
depressive  influence  of  other  people.  Thus,  when  we  make  a  joke  about  our  own  prob- 
lems or  those  of  another  person,  we  are  separating  ourselves,  at  least  momentarily, 
from  the  emotional  pain  involved. 

Empirical  Investigations 

As  we  saw  in  the  earlier  section  on  psychoanalytic  theory,  a  great  deal  of  research 
has  been  devoted  to  the  study  of  aggression  and  hostility  in  humor.  Although  much 
of  this  research  was  inspired  by  Freudian  theory,  it  can  also  be  viewed  as  relevant  to 
superiority/disparagement  theories,  since  both  approaches  share  the  idea  of  aggres- 
sion as  a  motive  in  humor.  The  theory  that  all  humor  is  based  on  aggression  leads  to 
the  prediction  that  there  will  be  a  positive  correlation  between  the  amount  of  hostil- 
ity present  in  a  joke  and  its  perceived  funniness.  Gruner  (1997)  stated  that  "usually, 
everything  else  being  equal,  the  more  hostile  the  humor,  the  funnier"  (p.  110).  Some 
research  has  provided  support  for  this  hypothesis.  McCauley  and  associates  (1983) 
conducted  a  series  of  six  studies  in  which  they  had  separate  groups  of  participants  rate 
the  aggressiveness  and  the  funniness  of  different  sets  of  cartoons  taken  from  maga- 
zines. In  each  of  these  studies,  significant  positive  correlations  were  found  between 
the  median  humor  and  aggressiveness  ratings  across  the  sets  of  cartoons  (r  =  .49  to 
.90),  indicating  that  the  more  aggressive  a  cartoon,  the  funnier  it  was  perceived  to  be. 


These  results  were  found  with  children  and  adults,  individuals  of  high  and  low  socioe- 
conomic  status,  and  native-  and  foreign-born  participants.  Singer,  Gollob,  and  Levine 
(1967)  and  Epstein  and  Smith  (1956)  also  found  evidence  that  hostile  cartoons  are 
enjoyed  more  than  nonhostile  cartoons. 

However,  some  other  research  suggests  that  a  moderate  amount  of  hostility  or 
aggression  in  humor  is  funnier  than  either  too  little  or  too  much.  Zillmann  and  Bryant 
(1974)  found  that  humorous  "squelches"  given  in  response  to  an  aggressor  were  per- 
ceived as  most  funny  when  they  involved  a  moderate  and  equitable  amount  of  retal- 
iation rather  than  an  over-  or  under-retaliation.  Similarly,  Zillmann,  Bryant,  and 
Cantor  (1974)  found  that,  when  research  participants  were  shown  political  cartoons 
in  which  mild,  moderate,  or  extreme  levels  of  disparagement  were  depicted  against 
presidential  candidates,  the  cartoons  showing  mild  attacks  on  a  rejected  candidate 
were  rated  as  most  funny.  Bryant  (1977)  also  found  that  a  moderate  amount  of  hos- 
tility expressed  in  put-down  humor  was  rated  funnier  than  either  mild  or  intense  hos- 
tility, even  when  the  equitableness  of  the  "squelch"  was  controlled.  Although  they 
suggest  a  curvilinear  (inverted-  U)  rather  than  a  linear  relationship  between  hostility 
and  funniness,  these  findings  could  perhaps  still  be  taken  as  supportive  of  Gruner's 
theory  of  humor  as  "playful  aggression,"  since  more  extreme  forms  of  aggression 
might  no  longer  be  perceived  as  playful  and  would  therefore  no  longer  be  expected 
to  be  funny. 

There  is  also  some  evidence  that  the  funniness  of  disparagement  humor  arises 
more  from  the  perceived  pain  experienced  by  the  victim  than  from  the  hostility  dis- 
played by  the  protagonist.  In  three  separate  studies,  Deckers  and  Carr  (1986)  obtained 
ratings  of  funniness,  the  amount  of  hostility/aggression  displayed  by  the  protagonist, 
and  the  amount  of  pain  experienced  by  the  victim  in  a  wide  variety  of  cartoons. 
Although  the  hostility  and  pain  ratings  were  highly  correlated,  funniness  ratings  were 
significantly  correlated  with  pain  ratings  but  not  with  hostility  ratings.  Funniness 
ratings  increased  as  pain  ratings  increased  up  to  a  point,  and  then  leveled  off  as  pain 
increased  further.  Thus,  moderate  pain  experienced  by  the  victim  or  target  of  a  joke 
is  perceived  as  funnier  than  no  pain,  but  extreme  pain  is  no  more  (or  less)  funny  than 
moderate  pain.  Thus,  consistent  with  superiority/disparagement  theory,  the  enjoy- 
ment of  humor  seems  to  arise  from  seeing  someone  suffer  (in  an  unreal,  playful 
context).  A  similar  correlation  between  funniness  and  pain  ratings  was  found  by 
Wicker  et  al.  (1981). 

Although  this  research  seems  to  support  the  aggression  view  of  humor,  Willibald 
Ruch  has  questioned  this  theory  on  the  basis  of  his  extensive  investigations  involving 
factor  analyses  of  jokes  and  cartoons  (e.g.,  Ruch  and  Hehl,  1998).  In  a  series  of  studies 
(which  will  be  described  in  more  detail  in  Chapter  7),  Ruch  and  his  colleagues  factor 
analyzed  subjects'  positive  and  negative  responses  to  a  wide  range  of  humor  stimuli 
with  participants  from  different  age  groups,  socioeconomic  backgrounds,  and  nation- 
alities. These  researchers  consistently  found  three  stable  factors,  two  of  which  related 
to  structural  aspects  of  the  humor  (labeled  incongruity-resolution  and  nonsense)  and 
only  one  content  factor  (sexual  themes).  Although  they  included  a  number  of  jokes 
and  cartoons  containing  hostile  and  aggressive  themes  in  their  studies,  these  did  not 


form  a  separate  factor,  but  instead  loaded  on  one  or  the  other  of  the  two  structural 
factors,  suggesting  that  hostility  is  not  a  very  salient  dimension  in  people's  responses 
to  humor.  In  defense  of  his  theory,  Gruner  might  perhaps  argue  that,  since  all  humor 
is  by  definition  based  on  aggression,  it  is  not  surprising  that  there  is  not  a  separate 
factor  for  aggression.  However,  these  factor  analytic  findings  do  raise  questions  about 
the  importance  of  aggression  and  hostility  in  humor.  Incidentally,  these  findings  also 
cast  some  doubt  on  the  validity  of  the  numerous  past  studies  (discussed  earlier)  that 
have  investigated  participants'  responses  to  jokes  and  cartoons  that  were  categorized 
by  the  researchers  themselves  into  hostile  and  nonhostile  types. 

Another  prediction  of  superiority/disparagement  theory  would  seem  to  be  that 
people  with  more  hostile  and  aggressive  personality  traits  will  enjoy  all  kinds  of  humor 
(not  just  hostile  humor)  more  than  do  less  aggressive  people.  However,  several  studies 
have  found  no  significant  correlations  between  a  variety  of  trait  measures  of  aggres- 
siveness and  appreciation  for  various  types  of  humor  (Ruch  and  Hehl,  1998).  Other 
studies,  as  we  have  already  seen,  have  found  that  aggressive  people  are  more  likely  to 
enjoy  more  hostile  forms  of  humor  (Donn  Byrne,  1956;  Ullmann  and  Lim,  1962). 
Thus,  while  aggressiveness  as  a  personality  trait  may  be  related  to  enjoyment  of 
aggressive  forms  of  humor,  it  does  not  appear  to  be  related  to  enjoyment  of  humor 
in  general,  contrary  to  the  predictions  of  superiority  theory. 

In  addition  to  these  studies  that  bear  on  the  relationship  between  funniness  and 
aggressiveness  in  humor,  a  considerable  amount  of  social  psychological  research  has 
been  conducted  on  disparagement  or  "put-down"  humor,  as  a  particular  category  of 
humor.  Indeed,  superiority/disparagement  theories  enjoyed  a  period  of  considerable 
popularity  among  social  psychologists  during  the  1960s  and  1970s.  This  was  partic- 
ularly evident  in  the  research  programs  of  Dolf  Zillmann  and  his  colleagues  at  Indiana 
University  (Zillmann  and  Cantor,  1976)  and  Lawrence  La  Fave  and  his  colleagues  at 
the  University  of  Windsor,  Canada  (La  Fave,  1972).  Much  of  this  research  focused 
on  the  way  the  funniness  of  disparagement  humor  is  determined  by  the  social  rela- 
tionships among  the  protagonists,  the  victims,  and  the  audience.  In  general,  these 
researchers  hypothesized  that  people  will  find  humor  in  the  misfortunes  of  those 
toward  whom  they  have  some  antipathy.  In  one  of  the  earliest  experiments  on  humor, 
Wolff  et  al.  (1934)  presented  a  series  of  anti-Jewish  jokes  to  both  Jewish  and  non- 
Jewish  participants.  Not  surprisingly,  they  found  that  the  Jewish  participants,  as  com- 
pared to  the  non-Jews,  displayed  less  appreciation  for  these  jokes.  In  addition,  men 
showed  more  appreciation  for  jokes  ridiculing  women  than  women  did,  while  women 
exceeded  men  in  their  appreciation  of  jokes  ridiculing  men. 

However,  mere  membership  in  a  particular  racial  or  religious  group  may  not  be 
sufficient  for  predicting  a  person's  response  to  jokes  about  that  group.  Middleton 
(1959)  found  that,  although  Black  participants  exceeded  Whites  in  their  appreciation 
of  jokes  disparaging  Whites,  Blacks  and  Whites  did  not  differ  in  their  appreciation  of 
anti-Black  jokes.  He  speculated  that  this  was  due  to  the  fact  that  the  Blacks  in  his 
sample,  who  were  predominantly  middle-class,  may  not  have  identified  themselves 
with  the  stereotyped  lower-class  Blacks  portrayed  in  the  jokes.  Similarly,  Cantor 
(1976)  found  that  both  female  and  male  college  students  showed  greater  appreciation 


for  disparagement  humor  in  which  a  male  had  the  last  laugh  at  a  female's  expense,  as 
compared  to  jokes  in  which  a  female  disparaged  a  male.  Furthermore,  subjects  of  both 
sexes  preferred  disparaging  jokes  in  which  women  (rather  than  men)  were  the  victims 
of  both  men  and  women.  These  findings  suggest  a  possible  identification  of  women 
with  male  aggressors  in  this  era  before  women's  liberation  had  made  an  impact  on  the 

In  view  of  these  sorts  of  findings,  Zillmann  and  Cantor  (1976)  emphasized  the 
importance  of  assessing  individuals'  attitudes  toward  a  target  group,  rather  than 
relying  merely  on  their  group  membership.  They  proposed  a  "dispositional  model  of 
humor,"  in  which  they  posited  that  individuals'  disposition  toward  other  people  or 
objects  varies  along  a  continuum  from  extreme  positive  affect  through  indifference  to 
extreme  negative  affect.  They  hypothesized  that  "humor  appreciation  varies  inversely 
with  the  favorableness  of  the  disposition  toward  the  agent  or  entity  being  disparaged, 
and  varies  directly  with  the  favorableness  of  the  disposition  toward  the  agent  or  entity 
disparaging  it"  (p.  100).  According  to  these  authors,  an  individual's  disposition  toward 
the  target  of  a  joke  is  not  necessarily  a  permanent  trait,  but  may  be  a  temporary 
attitude  evoked  by  the  situation,  including  features  of  the  joke  itself.  Importantly, 
though,  they  emphasized  that  humor  always  involves  disparagement  in  some  form: 
"something  malicious  and  potentially  harmful  must  happen,  or  at  least,  the  inferior- 
ity of  someone  or  something  must  be  implied,  before  a  humor  response  can  occur" 
(p.  101). 

Zillmann  and  Cantor  (1972)  found  evidence  in  support  of  this  theory  in  a  study 
in  which  a  group  of  college  students  and  a  group  of  middle-aged  business  and  pro- 
fessional people  were  presented  jokes  involving  people  in  superior-subordinate  rela- 
tionships (father-son,  employer-employee,  etc.).  As  predicted,  students  gave  higher 
ratings  of  funniness  to  the  jokes  in  which  the  subordinate  disparaged  the  superior  than 
to  those  in  which  the  superior  disparaged  the  subordinate,  whereas  the  ratings  of  pro- 
fessionals revealed  the  opposite  pattern  (see  also  Zillmann  and  Bryant,  1980). 

Similar  research  by  Lawrence  La  Fave  and  his  colleagues  (reviewed  by  La  Fave, 
Haddad,  and  Maesen,  1976)  employed  the  concept  of  the  "identification  class,"  which 
is  either  a  positive  or  negative  attitude-belief  system  regarding  a  given  class  or  cate- 
gory of  persons.  These  authors  also  emphasized  the  importance  of  self-esteem  in 
humor  appreciation.  Jokes  that  enhance  a  positively  valued  identification  class  or  dis- 
parage a  negatively  valued  identification  class  were  assumed  to  increase  the  individ- 
ual's self-esteem  and  lead  to  greater  mirth  and  enjoyment.  La  Fave,  Haddad,  and 
Maesen  (1976)  reviewed  a  series  of  five  studies  that  provided  general  support  for  their 
theory.  Each  of  these  studies  examined  humor  appreciation  responses  of  research  par- 
ticipants holding  opposing  views  on  different  social  issues,  such  as  religious  beliefs, 
women's  liberation,  and  Canadian-American  relations.  The  subjects  were  asked  to  rate 
the  funniness  of  jokes  in  which  individuals  identified  with  one  or  the  other  of  these 
opposing  views  were  either  the  protagonist  or  the  target  of  disparagement.  As  pre- 
dicted, participants  rated  the  jokes  as  funnier  when  the  protagonist  was  a  member  of 
a  positively  valued  identification  class  and  the  target  was  a  member  of  a  negatively 
valued  identification  class. 


Although  the  dispositional  theory  of  humor  suggests  that  humor  results  from  the 
demeaning  or  humiliation  of  someone  that  we  dislike,  Zillmann  and  Bryant  (1980) 
pointed  out  that  there  are  normally  strong  social  proscriptions  against  displaying 
amusement  and  pleasure  at  the  misfortunes  of  others,  even  those  we  dislike.  Drawing 
from  Freud's  idea  that  nontendentious  elements  of  a  joke  (the  jokework)  serve  as  a 
distraction  from  the  tendentious  (aggressive  or  sexual)  elements,  these  authors  sug- 
gested a  "misattribution  theory"  of  disparagement  humor.  According  to  this  theory, 
we  can  permit  ourselves  to  laugh  and  display  amusement  at  the  debasement  or  dis- 
comfiture of  someone  for  whom  we  feel  antipathy  if  there  are  incongruous  or  pecu- 
liar aspects  of  the  situation  to  which  we  can  (mis)attribute  our  amusement.  "If,  for 
example,  we  witness  our  neighbor  backing  his  brand-new  car  into  his  mailbox,  and  a 
negative  disposition  predisposes  us  to  enjoy  this  and  makes  us  burst  out  in  laughter, 
we  can  always  tell  ourselves  that  we  laughed  because  of  the  peculiar  way  in  which  the 
mailbox  was  deformed,  the  peculiar  expression  on  the  neighbor's  face,  the  peculiar 
squeaking  noise  of  the  impact,  or  a  dozen  other  peculiar  things"  (Zillmann  and  Bryant, 
1980,  p.  150). 

Zillmann  and  Bryant  tested  this  theory  in  an  experiment  in  which  participants 
were  first  either  treated  rudely  or  in  a  normal  manner  by  a  female  experimenter  to 
establish  either  a  negative  or  neutral  affective  disposition  toward  her.  The  subjects 
then  witnessed  her  in  one  of  three  conditions:  (1)  a  mishap  condition  with  humorous 
cues,  in  which  the  experimenter  accidentally  spilled  a  hot  cup  of  tea  on  herself 
when  a  jack-in-the-box  suddenly  popped  out  of  a  box;  (2)  a  mishap  condition  without 
humorous  cues,  in  which  she  spilled  hot  tea  on  herself  but  the  jack-in-the-box 
remained  closed;  or  (3)  a  no-mishap  condition  with  humorous  cues,  in  which  the 
jack-in-the-box  popped  up  but  she  did  not  spill  her  tea.  The  dependent  variable  was 
the  amount  of  mirth  (smiling  and  laughter)  displayed  by  the  subjects  following  this 

The  results  were  consistent  with  the  predictions  from  misattribution  theory.  The 
subjects  who  had  a  negative  disposition  toward  the  experimenter,  and  who  witnessed 
the  mishap  along  with  the  humor  cues,  smiled  and  laughed  much  more  than  did  the 
subjects  in  all  the  other  conditions.  Thus,  the  presence  of  innocuous  humor  cues 
seems  to  have  a  disinhibiting  effect  that  intensifies  mirth  in  response  to  seeing 
resented  others  suffer  misfortunes.  A  similar  process  presumably  occurs  in  aggressive 
jokes  in  which  one  can  misattribute  one's  amusement  to  humorous  elements  such  as 
incongruity  and  clever  wordplay  while  enjoying  the  disparagement  of  someone  toward 
whom  one  has  a  negative  disposition.  These  findings  are  consistent  with  Freud's  ideas 
about  the  jokework  fooling  the  superego  and  thereby  allowing  libidinal  pleasure  to 
be  enjoyed,  but  the  misattribution  account  provides  a  more  cognitive  explanation  in 
place  of  Freud's  generally  outmoded  psychoanalytic  concepts. 


There  seems  to  be  little  doubt  that  aggressive  elements  play  a  role  in  many 
jokes  and  other  forms  of  humor.  There  is  considerable  evidence  that  the  playfully 


aggressive  elements  in  jokes  and  the  perception  of  pain  in  others  (within  a  nonseri- 
ous,  playful  context)  contribute  to  the  funniness  of  the  humor.  There  is  also  evidence 
that  humorous  cues  in  the  situation  have  a  disinhibiting  effect,  enabling  one  to  mis- 
attribute  one's  mirth  in  response  to  the  misfortunes  experienced  by  disliked  others. 
The  research  on  disparagement  humor  by  Zillmann  and  La  Fave  and  their  colleagues 
explored  in  some  detail  the  parameters  influencing  the  degree  to  which  people  are 
amused  by  humorous  put-downs.  However,  there  is  little  evidence  supporting  the  view 
held  by  superiority/disparagement  theorists  that  all  humor  involves  some  form  of 
aggression  and  that  hostile  people  enjoy  all  types  of  humor  more  than  do  nonhostile 

There  are  also  several  problems  with  Gruner's  (1978,  1997)  version  of 
superiority/disparagement  theory.  First,  the  evolutionary  theory  that  he  presents  is 
essentially  an  outmoded  Lamarkian  view.  The  idea  that  laughter  and  humor  have  sur- 
vived in  humans  because  they  were  frequently  used  by  our  ancestors  does  not  explain 
their  adaptive  value,  that  is,  the  ways  in  which  humor  and  laughter  provide  an  advan- 
tage to  individuals  in  the  struggle  to  survive  and  produce  offspring.  This  is  not 
an  insurmountable  problem,  however,  as  compatible  theories  could  be  devised  that 
would  be  more  consistent  with  contemporary  evolutionary  thinking.  For  example, 
Alexander  (1986)  proposed  an  evolutionary  theory  of  humor  that  is  essentially  a 
superiority/disparagement  view,  making  use  of  concepts  such  as  ostracism  and  indi- 
rect reciprocity  to  account  for  the  survival  value  of  humor  and  laughter  (evolutionary 
theories  of  humor  will  be  discussed  in  more  detail  in  Chapter  6).  Another  problem 
with  Gruner's  theory  is  that,  like  Freud,  he  proposes  an  outdated  tension-release 
model  of  laughter.  However,  this  is  not  essential  to  his  theory. 

Apart  from  these  theoretical  problems,  comparative  animal  research  does  not 
support  Gruner's  view  that  laughter  evolved  in  the  context  of  aggression.  Ethological 
studies  of  the  silent  bared-teeth  display  and  the  relaxed  open-mouth  (play  face)  display 
in  apes,  which  are  viewed  as  primate  homologues  of  human  smiling  and  laughter, 
respectively,  reveal  that  these  facial  displays  occur  exclusively  in  the  context  of  friendly 
social  and  play  activities,  and  not  in  the  context  of  aggression  (van  Hooff,  1972).  I  will 
discuss  this  research  in  more  detail  in  Chapter  6. 

A  major  problem  with  Gruner's  theory  is  that  it  is  essentially  unfalsifiable  and 
therefore  cannot  be  tested  empirically.  Gruner  claims  that  his  theory  could  be  falsi- 
fied by  finding  just  one  example  of  humor  that  cannot  be  shown  to  be  based  on  aggres- 
sion. However,  since  Gruner  sets  himself  up  as  the  judge  of  whether  or  not  a  given 
example  of  humor  fits  his  theory,  it  seems  highly  unlikely  that  a  joke  will  be  found 
that  does  not  pass  the  test.  No  matter  how  dubious  the  evidence  may  appear  to  every- 
one else,  Gruner  always  seems  to  be  able  to  satisfy  himself  that  he  can  identify  the 
aggression  in  even  the  most  seemingly  innocuous  examples  of  humor.  Even  if  a  joke 
involves  nothing  more  than  a  clever  play  on  words,  Gruner  can  argue  that  this  conveys 
the  feelings  of  superiority  of  the  person  who  came  up  with  the  cleverness. 

Indeed,  one  suspects  that  Gruner  could  find  aggression  not  just  in  all  humor,  but 
in  all  human  activity.  It  appears  that,  to  Gruner,  humans  are  fundamentally  aggres- 


sive,  in  his  broad  sense  of  the  word.  Thus,  he  has  defined  aggression  so  broadly  that 
his  theory  seems  to  account  for  all  human  activity  and  therefore  fails  to  explain  the 
uniqueness  of  humor.  Furthermore,  by  lumping  all  humor  into  the  single  category  of 
aggression,  Gruner  ignores  the  many  other  ways  in  which  different  types  of  humor 
might  be  distinguished  from  one  another,  which  might  be  of  theoretical  and  practi- 
cal importance. 

Consistent  with  favorable  views  of  humor  in  contemporary  culture  as  a  whole, 
the  extreme  view  that  all  humor  involves  aggression  has  generally  fallen  into  disfavor 
among  humor  researchers.  Superiority  theories  have  largely  been  replaced  by  cogni- 
tive incongruity  theories,  which  will  be  discussed  in  the  next  chapter.  In  addition, 
recent  decades  have  seen  a  resurgence  of  views  of  humor  and  laughter  as  a  source  of 
psychological  and  physical  health,  and  a  growing  interest  in  applications  of  humor  in 
psychotherapy,  health  care,  education,  and  the  workplace.  The  view  of  humor  as  a 
form  of  aggression  (albeit  playful  aggression),  having  its  roots  in  derision  and  dispar- 
agement, seems  to  many  to  be  incompatible  with  benign  views  of  humor  as  a  pathway 
to  health.  However,  as  I  have  pointed  out,  the  superiority  view  can  actually  provide  a 
theoretical  basis  for  conceptualizing  humor  as  a  way  of  coping  with  stress  and  adver- 
sity. If  humor  is  a  way  of  playfully  asserting  a  sense  of  victory  over  the  people  and  sit- 
uations that  threaten  us,  mastery  over  our  oppressors,  and  liberation  from  life's 
constraints,  then  it  is  not  difficult  to  see  how  it  can  be  an  important  way  of  main- 
taining our  self-esteem  and  mental  sanity  in  the  face  of  adversity.  Thus,  the  superi- 
ority theory  may  actually  be  more  compatible  with  views  of  humor  as  coping  than  is 
often  recognized. 

In  summary,  although  an  extreme  view  of  humor  as  aggression  is  generally 
rejected  today,  most  researchers  agree  that  humor  can  often  be  used  to  express  aggres- 
sion. Recent  research  on  teasing  (discussed  in  Chapters  5  and  8)  exemplifies  the  con- 
tinuing interest  in  aggressive  aspects  of  humor  (Keltner,  Young,  Heerey,  Oemig,  and 
Monarch,  1998;  Kowalski,  Howerton,  and  McKenzie,  2001).  This  research  also  high- 
lights the  paradox  that  humor  can  be  both  aggressive  and  prosocial  at  the  same  time, 
a  theme  that  is  central  to  the  superiority  theory. 


In  this  chapter,  I  have  begun  my  discussion  of  the  major  humor  theories  and 
my  review  of  the  early  empirical  research  by  focusing  on  psychoanalytic  and 
superiority/disparagement  theories,  two  broad  theoretical  approaches  that  were  very 
influential  in  previous  decades.  Both  of  these  approaches  generated  a  good  deal  of 
interesting  research,  contributing  substantially  to  our  knowledge  of  the  psychology 
of  humor.  Although  they  are  not  as  prominent  today,  these  two  approaches  call  atten- 
tion to  a  number  of  questions  about  humor  that  continue  to  be  the  focus  of  much 
research  and  theoretical  work:  why  so  much  humor  seems  to  be  based  on  sexuality 
and/or  aggression;  why  humor  gives  us  so  much  pleasure  and  why  we  are  so 


motivated  to  engage  in  it;  the  role  of  humor  in  coping  with  stress;  and  the  functions 
of  humor  in  interpersonal  interactions.  We  will  return  to  these  themes  repeatedly 
throughout  this  book.  In  the  next  chapter,  I  will  explore  conceptual  and  early  empir- 
ical contributions  from  three  other  broad  theoretical  approaches  that  have  strongly 
influenced  humor  research,  namely  arousal,  incongruity,  and  reversal  theories. 


Theories  and  Early  Research  II: 

Arousal,  Incongruity,  and 

Reversal  Theories 

In  the  previous  chapter  we  examined  psy- 

choanalytic and  superiority  theories  of  humor.  Both  emphasize  emotional  aspects  of 
humor,  seeking  to  account  for  its  pleasurable  nature  by  focusing  on  ways  it  allows  us 
to  express  strong  emotions  (i.e.,  sexuality  and  aggression)  in  a  playful  way.  Although 
these  theories  are  not  very  popular  today,  they  introduced  themes  that  continue  to  be 
of  theoretical  and  empirical  importance. 

In  this  chapter,  I  will  discuss  three  additional  theoretical  approaches:  (1)  arousal 
theories,  which  focus  on  the  role  of  psychological  and  physiological  arousal  in  humor; 
(2)  incongruity  theories,  which  emphasize  the  cognitive  aspects;  and  (3)  reversal 
theory,  which  views  humor  as  a  form  of  mental  play.  Although  there  are  many  over- 
lapping ideas  in  these  different  approaches,  each  emphasizes  particular  aspects  that 
are  seen  as  central  to  humor.  By  combining  insights  and  findings  from  all  of  these 
approaches,  along  with  those  we  discussed  in  the  last  chapter,  we  gain  a  more  com- 
prehensive understanding  of  the  multifaceted  phenomenon  of  humor. 


Overview  of  the  Theories 

As  we  saw  in  the  previous  chapter,  both  Freudian  and  superiority  theories  (at  least 
the  version  advanced  by  Gruner,  1997)  hypothesized  that  the  function  of  laughter 



is  to  dissipate  excess  physiological  energy.  This  energy-release  theory  of  laughter 
can  be  traced  to  the  ideas  of  nineteenth-century  writer  Herbert  Spencer  (1860). 
Spencer  was  strongly  influenced  by  the  then-popular  "hydraulic"  theory  of  nervous 
energy  (modeled  after  the  steam  engine)  in  which  energy  is  thought  to  build  up  in 
our  bodies  and  must  be  released  through  muscular  movement.  According  to  Spencer, 
the  respiratory  and  muscular  action  of  laughter  is  a  specialized  way  for  the  body  to 
release  excess  nervous  energy,  much  like  a  safety  valve  on  a  steam  engine.  Needless 
to  say,  this  view  is  inconsistent  with  our  current  understanding  of  the  nervous 

Other  theorists,  both  before  and  after  Spencer,  have  conceptualized  humor  more 
generally  as  a  way  of  relieving  built-up  psychological  tension  or  strain.  For  example, 
Immanuel  Kant  (1724—1804)  stated  that  "laughter  is  an  affection  arising  from  the 
sudden  transformation  of  a  strained  expectation  into  nothing"  (in  Critique  of  Judg- 
ment, reprinted  in  Morreall,  1987,  p.  47).  Writing  early  in  the  twentieth  century, 
Gregory  (1924)  viewed  relief  as  the  common  factor  in  all  forms  of  humor.  According 
to  Gregory,  the  relief  that  leads  to  laughter  can  arise  from  many  sources,  including 
the  successful  outcome  of  a  struggle  or  the  sudden  perception  of  the  weakness  of  an 
opponent  (as  in  Gruner's  theory),  or  when  one  builds  up  tension  in  anticipation  of  a 
difficult  task  and  it  turns  out  to  be  much  less  demanding  than  expected.  It  can  also 
be  relief  from  pain  or  fear,  or  from  socially  imposed  constraints  on  behavior  or 

Tension-relief  theories  focus  on  the  role  of  psychological  and  physiological 
arousal  in  the  humor  process.  A  more  modern  arousal-related  theory  of  humor  was 
that  of  Daniel  Berlyne  at  the  University  of  Toronto  (Berlyne,  1960,  1969,  1972). 
Berlyne  was  interested  in  psychological  aspects  of  aesthetic  experiences  in  general, 
including  the  appreciation  of  art  and  the  enjoyment  of  play,  as  well  as  humor.  He 
focused  particularly  on  various  stimulus  properties,  which  he  referred  to  as  collative 
variables,  that  make  a  stimulus  such  as  a  work  of  art,  music,  or  literature  aesthetically 
pleasing.  These  included  such  properties  as  novelty,  level  of  surprise,  complexity, 
change,  ambiguity,  incongruity,  and  redundancy.  They  were  called  collative  variables 
because  they  require  the  individual  to  perceive  various  elements  of  a  stimulus  together 
in  order  to  compare  and  contrast  them.  According  to  Berlyne,  jokes  and  humorous 
events  also  contain  collative  variables,  such  as  surprise,  incongruity,  ambiguity,  and  so 
on.  Berlyne  (1960)  reviewed  psychophysiological  research  showing  that  collative  vari- 
ables strongly  attract  our  attention,  because  we  find  them  interesting  and  unusual,  and 
they  are  associated  with  increases  in  arousal  in  the  brain  and  autonomic  nervous 

In  his  theory  of  humor,  Berlyne  (1972)  rejected  Spencer's  outdated  notion  that 
laughter  derives  from  a  release  of  pent-up  energy.  Instead,  he  based  his  theory  on  the 
well-known  concept  of  an  inverted-  U  relationship  between  physiological  arousal  and 
subjective  pleasure  (Hebb,  1955).  According  to  this  view,  the  greatest  pleasure  is  asso- 
ciated with  a  moderate  amount  of  arousal,  whereas  too  little  or  too  much  arousal  is 
unpleasant.  Berlyne  postulated  two  arousal-related  mechanisms  in  humor,  which  he 
called  the  arousal  boost  and  arousal  jag  mechanisms.  The  arousal  boost  mechanism  oper- 


ates  during  the  telling  of  a  joke  or  perception  of  a  humorous  situation,  when  arousal 
is  elevated  by  means  of  the  collative  variables  in  the  stimulus.  This  increase  in  arousal 
up  to  an  optimal  level  is  experienced  as  pleasurable. 

The  arousal  jag  mechanism  takes  over  when  arousal  has  been  elevated  beyond  the 
optimal  level  and  has  therefore  begun  to  be  aversive.  The  joke  punch  line  is  a  sudden 
resolution  of  the  arousing  properties  of  the  joke,  causing  the  arousal  level  to  be 
reduced  very  quickly  to  a  pleasurable  level  once  again.  This  sudden  reduction  of 
arousal  from  an  aversive  to  a  pleasurable  level  adds  to  the  enjoyment  of  the  joke.  The 
subjective  pleasure  associated  with  both  the  arousal  boost  and  the  arousal  jag  is 
expressed  by  laughter.  Thus,  rather  than  viewing  laughter  as  a  method  of  releasing 
excess  arousal,  Berlyne  saw  it  as  an  expression  of  the  pleasure  resulting  from  changes 
in  arousal  to  an  optimal  level  (not  too  high  and  not  too  low).  Although  similar 
processes  occur  in  the  appreciation  of  art  and  in  play,  Berlyne  suggested  that  humor 
is  distinguished  from  these  other  types  of  aesthetic  experience  by  the  brief  time  scale 
on  which  the  arousal  changes  occur,  the  cues  precluding  seriousness  that  accompany 
it,  and  the  extreme  bizarreness  of  the  collative  variables  involved. 

Empirical  Investigations 

Arousal  theories  of  humor  received  a  considerable  amount  of  research  attention 
during  the  1960s  and  1970s,  a  period  when  there  was  great  interest  in  the  role  of 
arousal  in  emotions  generally.  The  focus  of  much  of  this  research  was  therefore  on 
the  emotional  component  of  humor,  which  I  refer  to  as  mirth.  In  a  well-known  exper- 
iment, Schachter  and  Wheeler  (1962)  manipulated  the  degree  of  sympathetic  nervous 
system  activation  in  research  participants  by  injecting  them  with  either  epinephrine 
(which  increases  arousal  of  the  sympathetic  nervous  system),  chlorpromazine  (which 
decreases  sympathetic  arousal),  or  a  placebo  saline  solution.  The  participants  were 
then  exposed  to  a  slapstick  comedy  film.  Those  who  had  been  injected  with  epi- 
nephrine showed  greater  amusement  (smiling  and  laughter)  in  response  to  the  film 
and  rated  it  as  funnier,  as  compared  to  those  in  the  placebo  group,  who  in  turn  showed 
greater  amusement  and  higher  funniness  ratings  than  did  those  in  the  chlorpromazine 
group.  Thus,  higher  levels  of  autonomic  arousal,  even  when  produced  by  a  drug, 
resulted  in  greater  expressions  of  mirth  and  perceptions  of  amusement  in  response  to 
a  humorous  stimulus. 

These  results  were  interpreted  as  providing  support  for  the  view  that  emotions 
involve  a  combination  of  autonomic  arousal  (which  determines  the  intensity  of  the 
emotion)  and  cognitive  appraisal  (which  determines  its  quality  or  valence).  Thus,  the 
amount  of  mirth  elicited  by  a  joke  or  humorous  experience  seems  to  be  a  function  of 
both  the  cognitive  appraisal  or  evaluation  of  the  amusing  qualities  of  the  humor 
stimulus  and  the  physiological  arousal  present  at  the  time.  Interestingly,  although  this 
physiological  arousal  may  be  activated  by  elements  of  the  joke  itself,  it  may  also  arise 
from  factors  separate  from  the  joke,  such  as  the  ingestion  of  an  arousing  drug.  Sub- 
sequent research  (Gavanski,  1986)  has  shown  that  smiling  and  laughter  (the  facial  and 
vocal  expressions  of  the  emotion  of  mirth)  are  more  strongly  associated  with  the 


emotional  enjoyment  of  humor  (humor  appreciation),  whereas  funniness  ratings  are 
related  more  to  the  cognitive  evaluation  component  (humor  comprehension). 

In  addition  to  research  on  the  effects  of  arousal  on  the  positive  emotional  response 
to  humor,  a  number  of  studies  were  conducted  to  investigate  Berlyne's  hypotheses 
that  humorous  stimuli  themselves  produce  changes  in  autonomic  arousal  and  that  the 
perceived  funniness  of  the  stimuli  is  related  to  this  arousal  level  in  a  curvilinear  manner 
(i.e.,  inverted- U  relationship).  Levi  (1965)  showed  female  office  clerks  a  series  of  four 
different  films  (emotionally  neutral,  fear-arousing,  anger-arousing,  and  comedy)  on 
different  days.  After  each  film,  he  collected  urine  samples  from  the  participants  and 
analyzed  them  for  levels  of  epinephrine  and  norepinephrine,  hormones  that  are  asso- 
ciated with  activation  of  the  sympathetic  nervous  system.  The  results  showed  that, 
whereas  the  emotionally  neutral  film  resulted  in  decreases  in  these  hormones,  the 
other  three  films  all  produced  significant  increases.  Thus,  the  amusement  associated 
with  comedy  produces  similar  arousal  of  the  sympathetic-adrenomedullary  system 
(the  well-known  fight  or  flight  response)  as  do  feelings  of  fear  and  anger.  More  recent 
research  has  also  shown  comedy-related  increases  in  levels  of  cortisol,  a  hormone  that 
is  normally  associated  with  the  stress  response  (Hubert,  Moeller,  and  de  Jong-Meyer, 

Other  researchers  monitored  various  psychophysiological  variables  associated 
with  arousal  of  the  sympathetic  nervous  system  while  participants  were  exposed  to 
comedy.  Averill  (1969)  found  increased  skin  conductance  (a  measure  of  emotion- 
related  sweating)  and  heart  rate  in  participants  watching  a  comedy  film,  indicating 
sympathetic  arousal.  Langevin  and  Day  (1972)  examined  the  relationship  between 
psychophysiological  changes  in  participants  and  the  rated  funniness  of  humor  across 
a  series  of  cartoons.  The  results  showed  that  cartoons  that  were  rated  as  funnier  were 
associated  with  greater  increases  in  heart  rate  and  skin  conductance.  Contrary  to 
Berlyne's  theory,  there  was  no  evidence  of  an  inverted-  U  relationship  between  arousal 
and  funniness;  instead,  the  relationship  was  found  to  be  linear. 

Godkewitsch  (1976)  further  evaluated  Berlyne's  theory  of  arousal  boost  and 
arousal  jag  mechanisms  by  assessing  physiological  responses  in  research  participants 
during  the  presentation  of  both  the  joke  body  and  the  punch  line  of  a  series  of  jokes, 
as  well  as  having  the  participants  afterwards  rate  their  subjective  arousal  level  and  the 
funniness  of  the  jokes.  The  results  revealed  that  jokes  that  were  rated  as  funnier  were 
associated  with  greater  increases  in  skin  conductance  during  both  the  joke  body  and 
the  punch  line,  greater  increases  in  heart  rate  during  the  punch  line,  and  greater  sub- 
jective arousal  ratings  subsequently.  These  results  supported  Berlyne's  notion  of  an 
"arousal  boost"  mechanism  in  humor,  but  did  not  support  the  "arousal  jag"  concept. 
Instead  of  lowering  arousal  to  a  supposedly  optimal  level,  the  punch  lines  were  found 
to  increase  arousal  even  further  than  that  found  with  the  joke  bodies. 

The  results  of  Godkewitsch's  study,  combined  with  the  findings  of  several  other 
investigations  examining  heart  rate,  skin  conductance,  blood  pressure,  muscle  tension, 
and  other  psychophysiological  variables  (e.g.,  Chapman,  1973a,  1976;  Goldstein, 
Harman,  McGhee,  and  Karasik,  1975;  J.  M.Jones  and  Harris,  1971),  provide  consis- 
tent evidence  that  exposure  to  humor  produces  increased  sympathetic  nervous  system 


activation,  with  almost  no  evidence  for  the  inverted-  U  relationship  predicted  by 
optimal  arousal  theories  like  Berlyne's.  The  relationship  between  humor  enjoyment 
and  autonomic  arousal  appears  to  be  linear;  the  more  arousal,  the  more  enjoyment 
and  the  funnier  the  humor  is  perceived  to  be  (McGhee,  1983b).  These  findings  are 
consistent  with  the  view  of  humor  as  essentially  an  emotional  response  (i.e.,  mirth) 
which,  like  other  emotions,  is  associated  with  increased  physiological  arousal. 

Based  on  evidence  that  the  degree  of  humor  appreciation  is  largely  determined 
by  the  level  of  emotional  arousal,  Cantor,  Bryant,  and  Zillmann  (1974)  conducted  a 
"transfer  of  excitation"  experiment  to  test  the  hypothesis  that  residual  arousal  associ- 
ated with  either  strong  positive  or  strong  negative  emotions  could  increase  the  enjoy- 
ment of  subsequent  humor.  In  a  2  x  2  design,  participants  were  randomly  assigned  to 
either  a  positive  or  negative  hedonic  tone  condition  and  to  either  a  high  or  low  arousal 
condition.  In  the  low  arousal  positive  condition,  they  read  mildly  interesting  articles 
from  a  newspaper;  in  the  high  arousal  positive  condition,  they  read  a  graphically 
descriptive  erotic  passage  from  a  novel.  In  the  low  arousal  negative  condition,  they 
read  a  mildly  disturbing  newspaper  article;  in  the  high  arousal  negative  condition, 
they  read  a  graphic  description  of  a  lynch  mob's  brutal  torture  and  mutilation  of  a 
young  boy.  In  a  supposedly  different  experiment,  the  participants  were  subsequently 
asked  to  rate  the  funniness  of  a  series  of  jokes  and  cartoons  that  did  not  contain 
obvious  sexual  or  hostile  themes. 

As  predicted,  participants  who  had  been  exposed  to  either  of  the  high  arousal 
emotion  conditions  (positive  or  negative)  rated  the  humor  stimuli  as  much  funnier 
than  did  those  in  the  two  low  arousal  conditions.  These  results  indicate  that  increased 
emotional  arousal,  regardless  of  whether  it  is  produced  by  a  positive  or  a  negative 
emotion,  can  contribute  to  greater  enjoyment  of  humor.  These  findings  also  provide 
a  more  plausible  explanation  of  the  tension-relief  function  of  humor  than  the  old 
"steam-engine"  model.  The  arousal  associated  with  negative  emotions  like  fear, 
anxiety,  or  anger  that  are  evoked  by  an  unpleasant  or  stressful  event  can  later  be  trans- 
ferred to  the  positive  feelings  of  mirth  accompanying  any  humor  that  may  occur, 
intensifying  the  pleasurable  feelings  to  a  degree  that  is  proportional  to  the  amount  of 
negative  emotion,  and  this  heightened  feeling  of  pleasure  is  then  expressed  through 
intense  laughter. 

Shurcliff  (1968)  conducted  an  interesting  experiment  to  test  the  hypothesis  that 
humor  represents  a  sudden  relief  from  strong  emotion,  using  anxiety  as  the  emotion. 
To  manipulate  their  levels  of  anxiety,  participants  were  informed  that  they  would  be 
required  to  perform  various  tasks  with  a  white  rat  that  they  were  to  remove  from  a 
cage.  They  were  randomly  assigned  to  different  conditions  involving  tasks  evoking 
varying  degrees  of  anxiety,  ranging  from  merely  holding  the  rat  to  giving  it  an  injec- 
tion with  a  large  syringe.  When  the  subjects  reached  into  the  cage  and  removed  the 
rat,  they  discovered  that  it  was  just  a  rubber  toy.  They  were  then  asked  to  rate  their 
anxiety  and  the  funniness  of  the  experience. 

As  predicted  by  relief  theory,  the  reported  level  of  anxiety  of  the  participants  prior 
to  the  discovery  of  the  toy  rat  was  found  to  be  positively  correlated  with  the  funni- 
ness ratings:  those  who  thought  they  would  need  to  give  the  rat  an  injection  with  an 


imposing-looking  needle  found  the  surprising  outcome  runnier  than  did  those  who 
merely  thought  they  would  need  to  hold  it.  However,  the  idea  of  relief  from  anxiety 
(i.e.,  anxiety-reduction)  was  not  directly  tested  in  the  study.  These  findings  seem  to 
be  better  explained  in  terms  of  the  "transfer  of  excitation"  concept,  whereby  the 
mirthful  emotion  associated  with  the  perception  of  funniness  was  enhanced  by  the 
residual  arousal  resulting  from  the  anticipatory  anxiety,  rather  than  by  a  sudden  reduc- 
tion in  that  arousal. 


Research  based  on  arousal  theories  of  humor  has  contributed  important  infor- 
mation to  our  understanding  of  the  humor  process.  Berlyne's  theory,  and  the  research 
it  inspired,  supports  the  view  that  humor  represents  a  complex,  physiologically-based 
interaction  between  cognition  and  emotion.  Humor  is  clearly  an  emotional  phenom- 
enon as  well  as  a  cognitive  one.  With  regard  to  the  cognitive  aspects,  Berlyne's  ideas 
about  collative  properties  in  humor  have  not  received  much  further  research  atten- 
tion. With  regard  to  his  ideas  about  the  emotional  aspects,  though,  there  is  consis- 
tent support  for  the  idea  that  humor  is  associated  with  increased  autonomic  arousal 
and  that  increases  in  arousal,  regardless  of  their  source,  can  increase  the  subsequent 
emotional  enjoyment  of  humor.  However,  there  is  little  evidence  for  an  inverted-  U 
relationship  between  arousal  level  and  enjoyment;  instead,  the  relationship  appears  to 
be  linear.  Rather  than  reducing  emotional  arousal  levels,  humor  itself  is  an  emotional 
response  that  is  accompanied  by  increases  in  arousal,  and  is  expressed  by  the  vocal 
and  facial  behavior  of  laughter. 

The  emotional  component  of  humor  has  gained  increasing  attention  among 
researchers  in  recent  years.  As  one  example,  Willibald  Ruch  (1997)  has  investigated 
the  positive  emotion  associated  with  humor,  using  Ekman  and  Friesen's  (1978)  Facial 
Action  Coding  system.  Research  on  biological  aspects  of  humor,  mirth,  and  laughter 
has  also  continued  to  the  present  time.  The  early  psychophysiological  investigations 
of  arousal  led  to  further  studies  of  physiological  processes  associated  with  humor  and 
mirth  in  the  autonomic  nervous  system,  the  endocrine  and  immune  systems,  and  the 
brain.  Today,  this  line  of  research  continues  in  studies  of  brain  processes  in  humor 
using  sophisticated  methodologies  such  as  functional  magnetic  resonance  imaging 
(fMRI).  This  research  will  be  discussed  in  more  detail  in  Chapter  6. 


Overview  of  the  Theories 

We  have  seen  that  most  of  the  different  theories  have  something  to  say  about  the 
cognitive-perceptual  aspects  of  humor.  For  example,  Freud's  ideas  about  jokework  and 
Berlyne's  collative  variables  both  referred  to  cognitive  components.  Incongruity  theo- 
ries of  humor  focus  even  more  specifically  on  cognition  and  give  less  attention  to  the 


social  and  emotional  aspects  of  humor.  These  theories  suggest  that  the  perception  of 
incongruity  is  the  crucial  determinant  of  whether  or  not  something  is  humorous: 
things  that  are  funny  are  incongruous,  surprising,  peculiar,  unusual,  or  different  from 
what  we  normally  expect.  As  we  saw  in  Chapter  1,  the  idea  that  incongruity  is  the 
basis  of  humor  has  been  proposed  by  many  philosophers  and  theorists  over  the  past 
250  years. 

The  eighteenth-century  writer  Beattie  stated  that  "laughter  arises  from  the  view 
of  two  or  more  inconsistent,  unsuitable,  or  incongruous  parts  or  circumstances,  con- 
sidered as  united  in  one  complex  object  or  assemblage,  or  as  acquiring  a  sort  of  mutual 
relation  from  the  peculiar  manner  in  which  the  mind  takes  notice  of  them"  (quoted 
in  Ritchie,  2004,  p.  48).  Similarly,  the  German  philosopher  Arthur  Schopenhauer 
(1788-1860)  stated  that  "the  cause  of  laughter  in  every  case  is  simply  the  sudden 
perception  of  the  incongruity  between  a  concept  and  the  real  objects  which  have 
been  thought  through  it  in  some  relation,  and  laughter  itself  is  just  the  expression  of 
this  incongruity"  (in  The  World  as  Will  and  Idea,  reprinted  in  Morreall,  1987,  p.  52). 
Thus,  humor  occurs  when  there  is  a  mismatch  or  clash  between  our  sensory  percep- 
tions of  something  and  our  abstract  knowledge  or  concepts  about  that  thing. 
Summarizing  the  cognitive  elements  involved  in  humor,  psychologist  Hans  Eysenck 
(1942,  p.  307)  stated  that  "laughter  results  from  the  sudden,  insightful  integration  of 
contradictory  or  incongruous  ideas,  attitudes,  or  sentiments  which  are  experienced 

The  incongruity  approach  to  humor  was  further  elaborated  by  Arthur  Koestler 
(1964),  who  developed  the  concept  of  bisociation  to  explain  the  mental  processes 
involved  in  humor,  as  well  as  in  artistic  creativity  and  scientific  discovery.  According 
to  Koestler,  bisociation  occurs  when  a  situation,  event,  or  idea  is  simultaneously  per- 
ceived from  the  perspective  of  two  self-consistent  but  normally  incompatible  or  dis- 
parate frames  of  reference.  Thus,  a  single  event  "is  made  to  vibrate  simultaneously  on 
two  different  wavelengths,  as  it  were"  (p.  35).  A  simple  example  is  a  pun,  in  which 
two  different  meanings  of  a  word  or  phrase  are  brought  together  simultaneously  (e.g., 
"Why  do  people  become  bakers?  Because  they  knead  the  dough"). 

The  following  joke  (from  Suls,  1972,  p.  90)  may  be  used  to  illustrate  these  ideas: 

O'Riley  was  on  trial  for  armed  robbery.  The  jury  came  out  and  announced,  "Not  guilty." 
"Wonderful,"  said  O'Riley,  "does  that  mean  I  can  keep  the  money?" 

The  punch  line  of  this  joke  is  incongruous,  or  inconsistent  with  the  setup,  since  the 
man  is  implicitly  admitting  his  guilt  after  just  having  been  found  not  guilty.  This  sur- 
prising ending  triggers  two  incompatible  thoughts:  he  is  guilty  and  not  guilty  at  the 
same  time.  Thus,  in  the  humorous  mode  of  thinking,  contrary  to  the  rational  logic 
of  normal,  serious  thought,  a  thing  can  be  both  X  and  not-X  at  the  same  time  (Mulkay, 
1988).  Indeed,  it  is  this  simultaneous  activation  of  two  contradictory  perceptions  that 
is  the  essence  of  humor.  It  is  worth  noting  incidentally  that  a  proponent  of  superior- 
ity theory,  such  as  Gruner  (1997),  would  say  that  we  are  laughing  at  the  stupidity  of 
the  crook  who  inadvertently  admits  his  guilt  after  just  being  found  innocent  (the  name 
O'Riley  indicates  that  it  is  also  an  ethnic  joke  playing  on  the  stereotype  of  the  Irish 


as  slow-witted).  Although  Koestler  (1964)  agreed  that  bisociation  must  be  accompa- 
nied by  some  aggression  in  order  for  it  to  be  funny,  later  incongruity  theorists  have 
generally  focused  only  on  the  cognitive  aspects  of  humor  and  have  downplayed  or 
even  denied  the  importance  of  aggressive  elements. 

Although  some  form  of  incongruity  is  generally  viewed  as  a  necessary  condition 
for  humor,  most  theorists  would  acknowledge  that  incongruity  by  itself  is  not  suffi- 
cient, since  not  all  incongruity  is  funny  (being  hit  by  a  car  while  walking  on  the 
sidewalk  is  incongruous  but  not  funny).  Different  theories  have  different  ways  of 
explaining  this  "something  extra."  For  example,  some  theories  have  suggested  that  the 
incongruity  must  occur  suddenly  (Suls,  1983),  or  must  take  place  in  a  playful  and  non- 
threatening  context  (Rothbart,  1976).  One  idea  that  was  popularized  by  several  cog- 
nitive theorists  in  the  1970s  was  that,  for  incongruity  to  be  funny,  it  must  also  be 
resolved  or  "make  sense"  in  some  way.  According  to  these  "incongruity-resolution" 
theories,  resolution  of  incongruity  in  a  joke  is  what  makes  it  possible  for  us  to  "get 
the  joke."  Thomas  Shultz  (1972),  at  McGill  University,  developed  an  incongruity- 
resolution  theory  in  which  he  suggested  that  the  punch  line  of  a  joke  creates  an 
incongruity  by  introducing  information  that  is  not  compatible  with  our  initial  under- 
standing of  the  joke  setup.  This  then  prompts  the  listener  to  go  back  and  search  for 
an  ambiguity  in  the  setup  that  can  be  interpreted  in  a  different  way  and  that  allows 
for  the  punch  line  to  make  sense.  The  ambiguity  that  provides  this  resolution  of  the 
incongruity  can  take  a  number  of  different  forms,  including  phonological,  lexical, 
surface  structure,  deep  structure,  and  nonlinguistic  forms  of  ambiguity. 

These  ideas  may  be  illustrated  by  the  following  joke  (from  Ritchie,  2004,  p.  62): 

A  lady  went  into  a  clothing  store  and  asked  "May  I  try  on  that  dress  in  the  window?"  "Well,"  replied 
the  sales  clerk  doubtfully,  "don't  you  think  it  would  be  better  to  use  the  dressing  room?" 

Here  the  punch  line  is  initially  incongruous  because  it  seems  incompatible  with  the 
first  part  of  the  joke.  To  understand  the  joke,  we  search  through  the  setup  for  an  ambi- 
guity and  discover  that  "in  the  window"  is  ambiguous.  On  first  hearing  the  setup,  we 
interpret  this  phrase  as  referring  to  the  current  location  of  the  dress,  but  after  the 
punch  line  we  realize  that  there  is  also  an  alternate  meaning,  i.e.,  the  place  where  the 
shopper  wishes  to  try  on  the  dress.  When  we  recognize  that  the  clerk  understood  it 
in  this  second  meaning,  we  are  able  to  resolve  the  incongruity  and  thereby  "get"  the 

Similar  to  Shultz,  Jerry  Suls  (1972,  1983),  then  at  the  State  University  of  New 
York  at  Albany,  proposed  a  two-stage  model  of  humor  comprehension  that  is  fre- 
quently cited  by  humor  researchers.  This  theory  also  views  humor  comprehension  as 
a  sort  of  problem-solving  task  (see  Figure  2).  According  to  the  model,  a  joke  setup 
causes  the  listener  to  make  a  prediction  about  the  likely  outcome.  When  the  punch 
line  does  not  conform  to  the  prediction,  the  listener  is  surprised  and  looks  for  a  cog- 
nitive rule  that  will  make  the  punch  line  follow  from  the  material  in  the  joke  setup. 
When  this  cognitive  rule  is  found,  the  incongruity  is  removed,  the  joke  is  perceived 
as  funny,  and  laughter  ensues.  If  a  cognitive  rule  is  not  found,  however,  the  incon- 
gruity remains,  and  the  joke  leads  only  to  puzzlement  instead  of  humor.  Thus,  in  this 


Story  or 




Is  ending 

FIGURE  2     Suls'  Incongruity  Resolution  Model.  Comprehension  of  humor  is  viewed  as  a 
process  of  problem  solving.  (Adapted  from  Suls,  1972). 

view,  humor  arises  from  the  removal  or  resolution  of  an  incongruity,  rather  than  from 
the  ongoing  presence  of  an  incongruity. 

The  two-stage  model  may  be  illustrated  with  the  following  joke  (from  Raskin, 
1985,  p.  106): 

An  English  bishop  received  the  following  note  from  the  vicar  of  a  village  in  his  diocese:  "Milord,  I 
regret  to  inform  you  of  my  wife's  death.  Can  you  possibly  send  me  a  substitute  for  the  weekend?" 

In  the  joke  setup  we  learn  that  a  vicar  (local  priest)  has  sent  a  note  to  the  bishop  fol- 
lowing the  death  of  the  vicar's  wife.  This  leads  us  to  predict  a  possible  outcome, 
perhaps  having  to  do  with  the  vicar  seeking  the  sympathy  of  the  bishop  in  some  way. 
In  the  punch  line,  the  vicar's  request  for  a  substitute  seems  surprising  (incongruous), 
as  he  seems  to  be  asking  the  bishop  to  send  him  a  replacement  for  his  dead  wife  for 
the  coming  weekend.  The  puzzlement  created  by  this  unexpected  ending  causes  the 
listener  to  go  back  over  the  joke  setup  and  search  for  a  "cognitive  rule"  that  will  make 
the  surprising  ending  fit  with  the  setup.  When  it  is  realized  that  the  vicar  is  actually 
asking  for  another  clergyman  to  officiate  at  the  church  service  in  his  place  while  the 
vicar  is  mourning  the  death  of  his  wife,  the  joke  makes  sense  (the  incongruity  is 
resolved),  and  we  find  it  amusing.  Thus,  in  this  model,  joke  comprehension  and  appre- 
ciation is  essentially  a  sort  of  cognitive  problem-solving  task. 

Note,  once  again,  that  Freud  would  likely  see  an  important  sexual  aspect  to 
this  joke.  Our  initial  interpretation  of  the  punch  line  implies  that  the  vicar,  seeking 
another  woman  so  soon  after  his  wife  died  (and  apparently  just  for  the  weekend),  is 
particularly  interested  in  sex.  However,  incongruity  theorists  tend  to  ignore  the 


"tendentious"  (sexual  and  aggressive)  elements  of  humor  that  are  emphasized  in  psy- 
choanalytic and  superiority/disparagement  theories.  Indeed,  several  cognitively 
oriented  theorists  have  sought  to  subsume  these  latter  theories  within  incongruity 
theory.  For  example,  Suls  (1977)  argued  that  the  aspects  of  jokes  that  are  usually 
thought  to  be  aggressive  and  disparaging  are  not  really  aggressive,  but  instead  are 
a  way  of  providing  the  information  needed  for  the  incongruity  to  be  resolved.  To 
illustrate,  he  used  the  following  joke  (p.  42): 

Question:  If  your  son  flunks  out  of  school  and  is  illiterate  and  anti-social,  what  can  he  grow  up 

to  be? 
Answer:  An  Italian  policeman. 

From  the  perspective  of  disparagement  and  superiority  theories,  this  joke  is  amusing 
to  people  who  dislike  Italians  because  it  disparages  people  of  that  nationality,  and  more 
specifically  Italian  policemen.  Analyzing  the  joke  from  the  perspective  of  incongruity- 
resolution  theory,  however,  Suls  argued  that  the  aggressive  element  merely  provides 
a  way  of  resolving  the  incongruity.  There  is  an  incongruity  between  the  joke  setup 
and  the  punch  line,  since  being  uneducated,  illiterate,  and  antisocial  does  not  seem  to 
be  consistent  with  being  a  policeman.  This  incongruity  is  resolved,  however,  when  we 
recognize  the  existence  of  a  stereotype  that  Italians  are  stupid. 

Although  Suls  suggested  that  we  may  actually  need  to  believe  this  stereotype  in 
order  to  "get"  the  joke,  other  authors  have  argued  that  simply  recognizing  that  such 
a  stereotype  exists,  without  actually  agreeing  with  it,  is  all  that  is  needed  to  enjoy  a 
joke  (e.g.,  Attardo  and  Raskin,  1991).  According  to  these  authors,  seemingly  aggres- 
sive (e.g.,  ethnic,  sexist)  forms  of  humor  are  not  really  aggressive  at  all:  they  simply 
make  use  of  common  stereotypes  to  play  with  ideas  in  an  amusing  way.  Goldstein, 
Suls,  and  Anthony  (1972)  referred  to  this  view  as  the  salience  hypothesis,  since  the 
purpose  of  aggressive  and  sexual  elements  in  jokes  is  to  make  salient  the  information 
needed  to  resolve  the  incongruity.  In  this  way,  cognitive  theorists  were  able  to  com- 
pletely sanitize  humor,  removing  any  residue  of  the  aggression  and  other  tendentious 
elements  that  were  once  seen  as  being  essential  to  it. 

Although  incongruity-resolution  theorists  saw  resolution  as  essential  for  humor 
to  occur  in  response  to  a  joke,  they  recognized  that  the  incongruity  is  never  com- 
pletely resolved.  As  Forabosco  (1992)  pointed  out,  the  resolution  is  really  just  a 
"pseudo-resolution,"  which  makes  sense  only  within  the  fantasy  world  of  the  joke.  If 
a  joke  truly  made  sense,  and  the  incongruity  was  completely  resolved,  it  would  simply 
be  a  nonhumorous  puzzle  instead  of  a  joke.  Similarly,  McGhee  (1972)  wrote  about 
the  "fantasy  assimilation"  that  occurs  in  jokes  as  being  quite  different  from  the  "reality 
assimilation"  of  more  serious  cognitive  processing.  Pien  and  Rothbart  (1977)  also 
noted  that  the  resolution  of  a  joke  often  introduces  new  incongruities  that  can  add  to 
its  enjoyment. 

Empirical  Investigations 

The  incongruity-resolution  theory  of  humor  was  investigated  in  a  series  of  studies 
by  Thomas  Shultz  and  his  colleagues  at  McGill  University.  Shultz  (1974b)  presented 


undergraduate  students  a  series  of  jokes  and  asked  them  to  identify  the  order  in  which 
they  noticed  various  elements  within  each.  The  results  supported  the  predictions  of 
Shultz's  incongruity-resolution  theory:  subjects  reported  that  they  did  not  notice  the 
hidden  meaning  of  an  ambiguous  element  in  the  joke  setup  until  the  incongruity  of 
the  punch  line  caused  them  to  search  for  a  resolution.  A  second  study  using  visual 
cartoons  instead  of  verbal  jokes  also  showed  that  participants  tended  to  notice  incon- 
gruous elements  before  noticing  details  that  resolved  the  incongruity. 

Shultz  and  his  colleagues  also  examined  the  role  of  incongruity  and  resolution  by 
creating  incongruity-removed  and  resolution-removed  versions  of  jokes  and  cartoons. 
If  incongruity  and  resolution  are  essential  to  humor,  then  removal  of  either  of  them 
should  decrease  humor  appreciation.  For  example,  one  of  the  original  jokes  was  the 

Mother:  "Doctor,  come  at  once!  Our  baby  swallowed  a  fountain  pen!" 
Doctor:  "I'll  be  right  over.  What  are  you  doing  in  the  meantime?" 
Mother:  "Using  a  pencil." 

In  this  joke,  the  incongruous  reply  of  the  mother  in  the  punch  line  is  resolved  by  rec- 
ognizing the  ambiguity  in  the  doctor's  question,  which  could  mean  either  "What  are 
you  doing  in  the  meantime  to  treat  the  baby?"  or  "What  are  you  using  as  a  substi- 
tute for  a  fountain  pen?"  In  the  incongruity-removed  version  of  the  joke,  Shultz 
changed  the  punch  line  to:  "We  don't  know  what  to  do."  In  this  version,  there  is  no 
incongruity  between  the  joke  setup  and  the  punch  line  and  therefore  no  puzzle  to 
solve.  In  the  resolution-removed  version,  Shultz  had  the  parents  saying  that  the  baby 
had  swallowed  a  rubber  band  instead  of  a  fountain  pen.  Now  the  punch  line  ("Using 
a  pencil")  is  still  incongruous  and  puzzling,  but  there  is  no  resolution,  since  there  is 
no  logical  connection  between  the  baby  swallowing  a  rubber  band  and  the  parents 
using  a  pencil. 

Shultz  and  Horibe  (1974)  presented  these  different  versions  of  a  number  of  jokes 
to  children  in  grades  1,  3,  5,  and  7.  The  children  were  asked  to  rate  the  funniness  of 
the  jokes,  and  the  experimenters  also  observed  the  degree  to  which  they  smiled  and 
laughed.  As  predicted,  the  results  showed  that,  by  grade  3,  the  children  found  the 
original  versions  of  the  jokes  funnier  than  the  resolution-removed  versions,  which  in 
turn  were  found  to  be  funnier  than  the  incongruity-removed  versions.  Thus,  incon- 
gruity without  resolution  is  funnier  than  no  incongruity,  but  resolution  of  the  incon- 
gruity is  even  funnier.  Similar  results  were  found  using  original,  incongruity-removed, 
and  resolution-removed  versions  of  cartoons  (Shultz,  1972)  and  riddles  (Shultz, 

Interestingly,  in  the  study  by  Shultz  and  Horibe  (1974),  children  in  grade  1 
showed  no  difference  between  the  original  and  resolution-removed  jokes,  but  both 
were  funnier  than  the  versions  without  incongruity.  The  authors  suggested  that,  at  an 
early  stage  of  development  (prior  to  the  development  of  concrete  operational  thought) 
incongruity  alone  is  sufficient  to  elicit  a  humor  response,  whereas  both  incongruity 
and  resolution  are  required  at  a  later  stage.  However,  Pien  and  Rothbart  (1976) 
found  that  younger  children  also  appreciate  joke  resolutions  if  the  humor  is  easy  to 


Problems  with  this  methodology  were  noted,  however,  by  some  researchers,  who 
pointed  out  that  it  is  difficult  to  hold  some  of  the  elements  of  a  joke  constant  while 
varying  others  (Nerhardt,  1977;  Pien  and  Rothbart,  1977).  For  example,  removing 
the  resolution  from  jokes  and  cartoons  may  also  eliminate  some  of  the  incongruity.  If 
participants  then  prefer  the  original  jokes  over  those  with  resolution  removed,  it  is 
difficult  to  know  whether  this  is  due  to  the  differences  in  resolution  or  incongruity. 
Frank  Wicker  and  colleagues  (1981)  at  the  University  of  Texas  at  Austin  attempted 
to  get  around  these  problems  by  taking  a  different  approach.  They  had  research 
participants  rate  a  number  of  jokes  on  a  funniness  scale  and  also  on  1 3  other  scales 
assessing  dimensions  suggested  by  various  theories  of  humor,  including  incongruity- 
resolution,  superiority,  psychoanalytic,  and  arousal  theories.  These  ratings  included: 
surprise,  nonsense,  resolution,  difficulty,  emotional  involvement,  superiority,  sym- 
pathy, pain,  freedom,  and  anxiety.  Participants'  ratings  on  each  of  the  scales  were 
averaged  for  each  joke,  and  a  factor  analysis  was  conducted  on  these  averaged 

This  analysis  revealed  three  factors  relating  to:  (1)  cognitive  incongruity- 
resolution  elements  (surprise,  resolution,  originality),  (2)  superiority,  and  (3)  emo- 
tional elements  (anxiety,  pain,  importance,  emotional  involvement).  The  funniness 
ratings  loaded  primarily  on  the  cognitive  factor,  a  finding  that  was  interpreted  as  indi- 
cating that  funniness  is  primarily  determined  by  information-processing  mechanisms 
relating  to  incongruity  and  resolution.  The  emotionality  factor  also  correlated  with 
funniness,  but  this  association  was  mediated  by  incongruity  and  resolution  ratings, 
suggesting  that  the  effects  of  emotional  elements  on  humor  appreciation  (such  as 
those  described  by  superiority  and  psychoanalytic  theories)  may  depend  in  part  on  the 
cleverness  of  the  cognitive  elements  described  by  incongruity-resolution  theories. 
This  finding  was  taken  as  support  for  the  salience  hypothesis  advocated  by  propo- 
nents of  incongruity-resolution  theories. 

However,  not  all  cognitive  theorists  were  convinced  by  the  evidence  for 
incongruity-resolution  theories.  For  example,  Swedish  psychologist  Goran  Nerhardt, 
at  the  University  of  Stockholm,  argued  that  incongruity  alone  is  sufficient  for  humor, 
and  that  resolution  of  the  incongruity  is  not  necessary.  Nerhardt  (1970)  was  dissatis- 
fied with  the  use  of  jokes  and  cartoons  as  stimuli  in  experiments  on  cognitive  processes 
in  humor.  Since  jokes  incorporate  many  unmeasured  and  uncontrolled  linguistic 
elements  and  emotional  themes,  he  argued,  it  is  difficult  to  know  which  dimensions 
are  responsible  for  research  participants'  funniness  ratings.  Also,  when  subjects  are 
asked  to  rate  the  funniness  of  jokes,  their  own  assumptions  and  implicit  theories 
of  humor  may  influence  their  responses.  To  avoid  these  problems,  Nerhardt  devel- 
oped a  rather  clever  methodology,  called  the  weight  judgment  paradigm,  as  a  way  of 
experimentally  manipulating  incongruity,  which  he  defined  as  divergence  from 

In  this  paradigm,  participants,  who  were  led  to  believe  that  they  were  involved  in 
a  psychophysical  study,  were  asked  to  compare  a  series  of  identical-looking  weights 
with  a  standard  reference  weight.  A  number  of  very  similar  weights  (averaging 
500  +/-  50  g)  were  evaluated  first,  and  then  one  that  was  much  lighter  or  heavier  than 


the  standard  (50 g  or  3000 g)  was  presented  (see  Deckers,  1993,  for  a  detailed  descrip- 
tion of  the  methodology).  Interestingly,  when  participants  lifted  this  greatly  discrepant 
weight,  they  frequently  smiled,  chuckled,  or  even  laughed  aloud,  and  Nerhardt  (1970, 
1976)  found  that  the  more  discrepant  this  weight  was  from  the  mean  of  the  other 
comparisons,  the  more  the  subjects  displayed  such  expressions  of  mirth.  Thus,  the 
size  of  the  incongruity  (the  discrepancy  in  weight)  was  directly  related  to  the  amount 
of  smiling  and  laughter  evoked.  Furthermore,  several  studies  using  this  paradigm 
showed  sizable  correlations  between  the  intensity  of  these  mirth  responses  and  par- 
ticipants' ratings  of  the  funniness  of  the  experience  (Deckers,  1993;  Deckers,  Jenkins, 
and  Gladfelter,  1977;  Deckers,  Pell,  and  Lundahl,  1990),  indicating  that  the  smiling 
and  laughter  was  a  reflection  of  humorous  amusement  and  not  just  embarrassment  or 
nervousness.  The  weight  judgment  paradigm,  then,  is  a  way  of  operationally  defining 
incongruity  without  using  inherently  humorous  stimuli  such  as  jokes  and  cartoons, 
and  it  seems  to  reliably  produce  an  emotional  mirth  response  that  is  expressed  by 
smiling  and  laughter. 

Lambert  Deckers  and  his  colleagues  at  Ball  State  University  used  this  procedure 
in  a  number  of  experiments,  in  which  they  varied  different  parameters  to  examine 
their  effects  on  the  mirth  response.  For  example,  Deckers  and  Kizer  (1975)  found  that 
a  minimum  number  of  initial  comparisons  was  needed  in  order  to  build  up  an  expec- 
tation about  the  weight  before  a  discrepancy  would  evoke  expressions  of  mirth.  In 
addition,  studies  that  manipulated  the  degree  of  discrepancy  between  the  final  and 
earlier  weights  showed  a  negatively  accelerated  relationship  with  the  amount  of 
smiling  and  laughter  evoked:  greater  discrepancies  evoked  a  greater  amount  of  these 
responses  up  to  a  point,  after  which  additional  increases  in  the  weight  discrepancy  did 
not  produce  more  mirth  (Deckers  and  Edington,  1979;  Deckers  and  Salais,  1983; 
Gerber  and  Routh,  1975). 

Studies  comparing  the  effects  of  unexpectedly  heavy  versus  light  weights  indi- 
cated that  weights  that  were  heavier  than  expected  evoked  more  humor  than  did  those 
that  were  lighter  than  expected  (Deckers  and  Kizer,  1974;  Gerber  and  Routh,  1975). 
When  subjects  were  asked  to  make  judgments  about  either  the  height  or  the  weight 
of  a  series  of  stimuli  and  then  presented  with  stimuli  that  were  incongruous  in  either 
height  or  weight,  mirth  reactions  were  greater  when  the  critical  comparison  was  dis- 
crepant in  the  particular  dimension  that  the  subject  had  been  judging  (Deckers, 
Edington,  and  VanCleave,  1981). 

Nerhardt  (1976)  and  Deckers  (1993)  argued  that  the  weight  judgment  findings 
demonstrate  that  incongruity  without  resolution  is  capable  of  eliciting  humor,  con- 
tradicting incongruity-resolution  theories  which  suggest  that  incongruity  must  be 
resolved  for  it  to  be  funny.  At  the  same  time,  they  recognized  that  there  are  other 
necessary  conditions  in  addition  to  incongruity  for  a  humor  response  to  be  evoked. 
Interestingly,  Nerhardt  (1976)  was  initially  unsuccessful  in  his  early  experiments  with 
the  weight  judgment  paradigm,  which  he  carried  out  in  the  guise  of  a  consumer  survey 
in  a  railroad  station.  There  he  found  that  train  passengers  who  were  asked  to  judge 
weights  of  a  series  of  suitcases  did  not  respond  with  expressions  of  mirth  to  unex- 
pectedly heavy  or  light  ones.  This  was  apparently  because  they  were  inclined  to  take 


the  experiment  too  seriously,  were  perhaps  in  a  hurry  to  get  somewhere,  and  were  not 
easily  put  into  the  playful  frame  of  mind  that  also  seems  to  be  necessary  for  a  humor 
response  to  occur  (cf.  Apter,  1982).  When  the  experimental  paradigm  was  moved  into 
a  laboratory,  using  undergraduate  participants  who  were  more  familiar  with  psycho- 
logical research,  and  an  effort  was  made  to  put  the  subjects  at  ease,  smiling  and  laugh- 
ter began  to  be  elicited  by  the  discrepant  weight.  Thus,  although  resolution  of 
incongruity  may  not  be  necessary  for  humor,  it  does  appear  that  there  are  other 
requirements  besides  incongruity,  having  to  do  with  the  emotional  climate  or  mental 
set  of  the  perceiver.  In  sum,  incongruity  seems  to  be  a  necessary  but  not  a  sufficient 
condition  for  humor. 

Several  studies  have  also  investigated  the  salience  hypothesis  proposed  by 
incongruity-resolution  theorists.  As  we  saw  in  the  previous  chapter  in  our  discussion 
of  psychoanalytic  theory,  earlier  research  showed  that  participants  are  more  likely  to 
enjoy  aggressive  humor  after  they  have  been  made  angry  and  to  enjoy  sexual  humor 
after  they  have  been  sexually  aroused  (e.g.,  Strickland,  1959).  These  findings  were 
interpreted  by  psychoanalytic  theorists  as  demonstrating  support  for  drive  theory.  In 
contrast,  incongruity-resolution  theorists  Goldstein,  Suls,  and  Anthony  (1972)  sug- 
gested that  these  experimental  manipulations  simply  increased  the  salience  of  sexual 
and  aggressive  themes,  thereby  creating  a  cognitive  set  that  made  the  corresponding 
jokes  easier  to  understand. 

To  test  this  idea,  Goldstein  and  colleagues  (1972)  conducted  an  experiment  in 
which  they  presented  participants  with  photographs  depicting  either  scenes  of  vio- 
lence or  automobiles.  After  rating  the  photographs  for  aesthetic  value,  the  subjects 
were  asked  to  rate  the  funniness  of  a  number  of  cartoons  that  were  either  aggressive 
or  contained  automobiles  as  a  major  element.  As  predicted  by  the  salience  hypothe- 
sis, those  who  had  been  exposed  to  aggressive  photographs  rated  aggressive  humor  as 
funnier,  whereas  those  who  had  been  exposed  to  photographs  of  automobiles  pre- 
ferred the  cartoons  about  automobiles. 

In  a  second  study,  the  researchers  showed  that  exposure  to  music-related  jokes 
increases  subsequent  enjoyment  of  other  jokes  about  music,  whereas  exposure  to  jokes 
about  medical  topics  increases  subsequent  enjoyment  of  medical  jokes.  Since  pictures 
of  automobiles  and  jokes  about  music  and  medicine  are  not  likely  to  arouse  specific 
drives,  the  results  appear  to  support  the  hypothesis  that  it  is  the  salience  of  the  content, 
rather  than  arousal  of  a  drive,  that  accounts  for  the  increased  appreciation  of  the 
humor.  The  authors  concluded  that  "the  most  parsimonious  explanation  of  the  data 
would  rule  out  motivation  as  an  explanatory  concept,  since  the  salience  hypothesis 
can  account  for  the  appreciation  of  nonsense  as  well  as  aggressive  and  sexual  humor" 
(p.  169). 

A  subsequent  study  by  Kuhlman  (1985),  however,  provided  less  support  for  the 
salience  hypothesis.  Kuhlman  manipulated  salience  in  a  less  obvious  way  by  having 
participants  rate  the  funniness  of  a  series  of  jokes  either  in  a  normal  college  class- 
room, or  just  before  they  were  to  take  an  examination,  or  in  the  middle  of  an  exam. 
One-third  of  the  jokes  contained  social  taboo  themes  (sex,  profanity,  violence),  one 
third  contained  themes  relating  to  academic  examinations  (salient  jokes),  and  one 


third  involved  neutral  themes.  An  effort  was  made  to  equate  the  jokes  for  character- 
istics that  might  affect  funniness,  such  as  difficulty,  the  incongruity  techniques  used, 
length,  and  so  on.  The  salience  hypothesis  would  predict  that  the  exam-related  jokes 
should  be  enjoyed  more  just  before  or  during  an  exam  than  during  a  normal  class. 

However,  the  results  showed  that  the  jokes  containing  taboo  themes  were  pre- 
ferred over  the  other  two  types  in  all  three  experimental  conditions.  Rather  than 
supporting  the  salience  hypothesis,  these  results  appear  to  support  motivational- 
emotional  views  such  as  psychoanalytic  and  superiority/disparagement  theories.  An 
additional  finding  was  that  all  three  types  of  jokes  were  enjoyed  more  by  the  subjects 
who  were  in  the  middle  of  an  exam  than  by  those  in  the  other  two  conditions.  This 
result,  consistent  with  arousal  theories  of  humor,  suggests  that  humor  appreciation  is 
elevated  by  increased  levels  of  state  anxiety.  A  study  by  Derks  and  Arora  (1993) 
also  found  little  support  for  the  salience  hypothesis.  In  summary,  the  existing  evidence 
for  the  salience  hypothesis  is  inconsistent.  This  is  a  topic  that  merits  further 

According  to  incongruity  theories,  the  funniness  of  a  joke  depends  on  the  unex- 
pectedness or  surprisingness  of  the  punch  line.  Thus,  the  funniest  jokes  should  be 
those  having  the  most  unpredictable  or  surprising  endings  (e.g.,  Shultz,  1976;  Suls, 
1972).  However,  this  hypothesis  has  not  been  supported  by  research,  which  has  tended 
to  show  instead  that  more  predictable  joke  endings  are  actually  funnier  than  less  pre- 
dictable ones.  For  example,  Kenny  (1955)  had  a  group  of  participants  rate  a  number 
of  jokes  on  the  degree  to  which  the  punch  line  corresponded  to  what  they  expected 
it  would  be,  and  another  group  of  participants  were  asked  to  rate  the  same  jokes  for 
funniness.  Mean  ratings  on  these  two  scales  were  computed  for  each  joke,  and  the 
correlation  between  them  was  analyzed.  Contrary  to  the  predictions  of  incongruity- 
resolution  theory,  a  significant  positive  correlation  was  found:  the  jokes  with  the  most 
predictable  punch  lines  were  rated  as  most  funny. 

A  difficulty  with  Kenny's  study  was  that  the  ratings  of  predictability  were  made 
retrospectively  by  the  participants  after  they  had  already  heard  the  punch  lines,  and 
it  may  therefore  have  been  difficult  for  them  to  judge  accurately  the  degree  to  which 
they  had  been  expecting  those  particular  punch  lines.  To  correct  this  problem,  Pollio 
and  Mers  (1974)  had  participants  listen  to  a  number  of  tape  recordings  of  comedy 
routines  by  Bill  Cosby  and  Phyllis  Diller.  The  recordings  were  stopped  immediately 
before  the  punch  lines  of  the  jokes  were  delivered,  and  the  subjects  were  instructed 
to  write  out  what  they  thought  the  punch  lines  would  be.  The  researchers  subse- 
quently rated  the  degree  to  which  these  predicted  punch  lines  conformed  to  the  actual 
punch  lines  delivered  by  the  comedians.  These  similarity  ratings  were  found  to  be 
positively  correlated  with  the  funniness  ratings,  smiling,  and  laughter  of  a  different 
set  of  subjects  in  response  to  the  same  recordings:  jokes  that  were  most  predictable 
were  most  funny.  Like  the  findings  of  Kenny  (1955),  these  results  appear  to  contra- 
dict incongruity  theory.  People  seem  to  find  a  joke  funnier  when  they  "see  the  punch 
line  coming"  than  when  it  is  completely  unexpected.  Pollio  and  Mers  concluded  that 
"laughter  is  a  partial  exclamation  of  achievement  rather  than  an  expression  of  surprise 
over  incongruity"  (p.  232). 

3     •     THEORIES     AND     EARLY     RESEARCH     II 


Incongruity  theories  have  made  an  important  contribution  to  our  understanding 
of  humor.  When  they  were  introduced  in  the  late  1960s  and  early  1970s,  they  drew 
researchers'  attention  to  cognitive-perceptual  aspects  of  humor,  which  had  been  seen 
as  only  having  secondary  importance  in  other  approaches  such  as  psychoanalytic, 
superiority/disparagement,  and  arousal  theories.  Incongruity  theories  stimulated  a 
great  deal  of  research  and  further  theoretical  development  that  have  continued  to  the 
present  day  (more  recent  cognitive  theory  and  research  will  be  discussed  in  the  next 
chapter).  In  1967,  when  topics  such  as  aggression,  sexual  drive,  and  arousal  were  the 
main  focus  of  attention  in  research  on  humor,  Zigler,  Levine,  and  Gould  noted  a  ten- 
dency for  researchers  to  "underestimate  the  importance  of  cognitive  factors  in  deter- 
mining the  degree  of  laughter"  (p.  332).  However,  the  situation  has  since  then  been 
reversed,  as  cognitive  approaches  to  humor  became  the  prevailing  view,  and  emotional 
aspects  became  much  less  frequently  studied.  This  growing  focus  on  cognition  in 
humor  paralleled  the  trend  toward  an  information-processing  orientation  in  psychol- 
ogy generally,  as  well  as  related  disciplines  such  as  linguistics.  More  recently,  however, 
there  has  been  some  renewed  interest  in  emotional  aspects.  In  particular,  the  emo- 
tional nature  of  humor  has  been  highlighted  by  recent  brain-imaging  studies  (Berns, 
2004).  The  contemporary  movement  known  as  "positive  psychology"  has  also  gener- 
ated new  interest  in  the  study  of  positive  emotions  in  general  and  the  emotion  of 
mirth  in  particular  (e.g.,  Aspinwall  and  Staudinger,  2003;  Fredrickson,  2001). 

The  research  evidence  to  date  generally  supports  the  idea  that  incongruity  of 
some  sort  is  an  essential  element  of  humor.  Some  variation  of  Koestler's  (1964)  idea 
that  humor  involves  the  activation  of  two  normally  incompatible  frames  of  reference 
continues  to  form  the  basis  of  most  humor  theories  today.  However,  it  is  important 
to  note  that  the  concept  of  incongruity  is  still  rather  vague  and  not  well  defined 
(Ritchie,  2004).  Moreover,  the  different  variants  of  incongruity  and  incongruity- 
resolution  theories  present  somewhat  different  conceptualizations  of  the  function  of 
incongruity.  For  example,  in  both  Shultz's  and  Suls'  theories,  incongruity  is  no  longer 
present  at  the  point  where  a  joke  is  perceived  to  be  funny,  since  it  has  been  "resolved" 
by  then.  This  is  quite  different  from  Koestler's  original  view,  in  which  the  "bisocia- 
tion"  (i.e.,  the  ongoing  incongruity)  is  what  creates  the  humorous  effect,  rather 
than  its  removal.  Ritchie  (2004)  has  also  noted  that,  although  the  theories  of  Shultz 
and  Suls  are  generally  viewed  as  essentially  interchangeable,  there  are  some  subtle 
but  important  differences  between  them.  He  suggested  that  these  different  theories 
may  apply  to  different  subclasses  of  jokes  rather  than  to  all  jokes,  much  less  all 
humor.  As  we  will  see  in  the  next  chapter,  theorists  and  researchers  continue  to  make 
refinements  to  the  ideas  and  research  methodologies  of  the  earlier  incongruity 

Although  some  sort  of  incongruity  (however  defined)  seems  to  be  necessary  for 
all  types  of  humor,  there  is  less  evidence  for  the  idea  that  resolution  is  also  essential. 
Theorists  subscribing  to  the  incongruity-resolution  view  typically  based  their 
theories  on  the  joke  as  the  prototype  of  humor,  and  tested  their  hypotheses  with 


research  using  jokes  and  cartoons.  In  contrast,  much  of  the  evidence  for  humorous 
incongruity  without  resolution  comes  from  non-joke-related  humor,  such  as  the 
weight  judgment  paradigm.  The  processes  involved  in  jokes  may  not  be  the  same  as 
those  in  other  forms  of  humor,  such  as  spontaneous  conversational  humor  (e.g., 
witticisms,  puns,  slips  of  the  tongue,  spoonerisms)  and  nonverbal  humor  (e.g.,  slap- 
stick comedy).  It  may  be  that  incongruity-resolution  theories  apply  particularly  to  a 
certain  class  of  jokes  and  cartoons,  whereas  resolution  may  be  less  important  in  other 
jokes  and  other  forms  of  humor.  In  Chapter  7,  I  will  discuss  research  by  Willibald 
Ruch  (e.g.,  Ruch  and  Hehl,  1998)  indicating  that  jokes  and  cartoons  can  be  divided 
into  two  general  categories  on  the  basis  of  whether  or  not  they  involve  the  resolution 
of  incongruity. 

As  Long  and  Graesser  (1988)  noted,  jokes  and  cartoons,  which  are  context- 
independent,  can  be  enjoyed  in  almost  any  situation,  since  they  contain  within  them- 
selves all  the  information  needed  for  their  understanding.  Other  forms  of  humor  are 
more  context-sensitive,  requiring  information  arising  from  the  situation  to  create  the 
humor.  This  is  why  the  latter  types  of  humor  often  lose  their  funniness  when  described 
out  of  context  ("You  had  to  be  there").  This  portability  of  jokes  and  cartoons  is  also 
the  reason  why  they  have  been  most  commonly  used  in  humor  research,  while 
more  spontaneous  forms  of  humor  that  arise  in  the  course  of  social  interactions,  which 
are  more  difficult  to  create  in  a  laboratory,  are  less  frequently  studied.  However,  the 
study  of  jokes  and  cartoons  may  provide  only  limited  information  about  other  more 
spontaneous  types  of  humor.  Since  jokes  and  cartoons  also  play  only  a  minor  role  in 
the  humor  that  most  people  experience  in  their  daily  lives  (Mannell  and  McMahon, 
1982;  R.  A.  Martin  and  Kuiper,  1999;  Provine,  2000),  it  is  important  for  researchers 
to  study  the  cognitive  processes  involved  in  other  forms  of  humor  besides  jokes.  For- 
tunately, as  we  will  see  in  the  next  chapter,  theorists  and  researchers  in  recent  years 
have  begun  to  pay  more  attention  to  cognitive  processes  involved  in  non-joke-related 

Another  weakness  of  incongruity-resolution  theories  is  that  they  try  to  explain 
the  cognitive  processes  involved  in  joke  comprehension  without  taking  the  social 
context  of  joke-telling  into  account.  The  suggestion  that  listeners  are  surprised  or 
puzzled  by  an  unexpected  punch  line  assumes  that  they  are  seeking  to  understand 
humor  as  they  would  serious  forms  of  communication,  where  contradictory  informa- 
tion is  puzzling  and  unsettling.  However,  as  more  recent  theorists  have  noted  (e.g., 
Norrick,  2003;  Wyer  and  Collins,  1992),  when  jokes  are  told  in  normal  social  situa- 
tions, they  are  usually  prefaced  by  cues  alerting  the  listeners  to  the  fact  that  they  are 
about  to  hear  a  joke  ("Did  you  hear  the  one  about .  .  .").  Even  in  the  research  context, 
when  jokes  are  used  as  stimuli,  subjects  are  told  that  they  will  be  presented  with  jokes, 
or  they  are  alerted  to  this  fact  by  instructions  to  rate  their  funniness.  Since  listeners 
usually  know  that  they  are  hearing  a  joke,  they  are  likely  more  actively  involved  in 
anticipating  the  outcome  and  are  not  as  surprised  by  the  punch  line  as  incongruity- 
resolution  theories  suggested.  Rather  than  being  surprising  or  unexpected,  incon- 
gruity is  actually  expected  in  humor,  and,  indeed,  a  lack  of  incongruity  would 
be  surprising.  When  people  know  that  they  are  hearing  a  joke,  then,  they  likely 


anticipate  and  search  for  an  incongruity,  and  their  ability  to  predict  the  incongruity 
may  even  enhance  the  funniness  of  the  joke.  This  would  explain  why  Pollio  and  Mers 
(1974)  found  that  the  funniest  jokes  were  those  in  which  the  subjects  were  best  able 
to  predict  the  punch  lines.  Thus,  while  the  perception  of  some  sort  of  incongruity 
seems  to  play  a  central  role  in  humor,  the  incongruity  may  not  need  to  be  unantici- 
pated to  be  enjoyed.  This  would  also  account  for  the  fact  that  jokes  and  humorous 
incidents  can  often  continue  to  be  amusing  even  after  repeated  retelling  (Eysenck, 

Although  incongruity  theories  and  other  cognitive  approaches  make  important 
contributions  to  the  study  of  humor,  it  is  important  also  to  note  that  they  do  not  ade- 
quately account  for  all  aspects  of  humor.  In  particular,  these  approaches  do  not  explain 
the  emotional  and  social  aspects  of  humor  that  are  the  focus  of  other  theories.  As  we 
have  seen,  many  cognitive  theorists  attempt  to  subordinate  these  "tendentious"  ele- 
ments to  the  cognitive  mechanisms,  denying  their  importance  in  humor.  While 
reading  these  theorists'  analyses  of  various  jokes,  one  is  often  struck  by  the  degree  to 
which  they  completely  ignore  the  seemingly  obvious  sexual,  aggressive,  and  other 
emotion-arousing  aspects.  As  we  have  seen,  though,  there  is  considerable  evidence 
that  sexual  and  aggressive  elements  can  contribute  to  the  enjoyment  of  humor  inde- 
pendently of  the  cognitive  mechanisms.  Many  jokes  are  difficult  to  explain  on  the  basis 
of  cognitive  processes  alone.  Consider  the  following  joke  (from  Gruner,  1978,  p.  35), 
for  example: 

A  woman  sideswiped  a  car  driven  by  a  man.  The  woman  climbed  out  and  apologized  for  the 
accident.  The  man  demurred:  "That's  O.K.  lady,  it  was  all  my  fault.  I  could  see  it  was  a  woman 
driving  your  car  from  half  a  mile  away,  and  I  had  lots  of  time  to  drive  off  into  a  field  and  avoid  all 

Incongruity-resolution  theories  would  suggest  that  the  main  source  of  the  humor  here 
is  the  incongruity  of  a  person  taking  the  blame  for  an  accident  that  he  did  not  cause 
and  saying  he  should  have  avoided  it  by  driving  into  a  field.  This  incongruity  is 
resolved  by  accessing  the  stereotype  that  women  are  inherently  such  terrible  drivers 
that  they  cannot  do  anything  about  it  and  therefore  should  not  be  held  respon- 
sible. What  appears  to  be  aggression  is  merely  what  enables  one  to  "get"  the  joke;  it 
wouldn't  be  resolved  otherwise.  However,  this  sort  of  explanation  seems  to  ignore  the 
emotional  nature  of  humor  and  turn  it  into  a  purely  intellectual  exercise.  What  is  the 
source  of  pleasure  in  this  joke?  Is  it  merely  the  intellectual  enjoyment  of  playing  with 
a  puzzling  incongruity  and  then  discovering  its  resolution,  or  is  it  the  emotional  pleas- 
ure of  taking  a  playfully  aggressive  jab  at  women  drivers?  It  is  likely  a  combination  of 
both.  Cognitive  processes  involving  incongruity  and  resolution  are  what  make  the 
joke  funny,  while  aggressive  elements  enhance  the  feelings  of  enjoyment.  Without  the 
cognitive  elements  peculiar  to  humor,  aggression  is  not  funny,  but  without  the  aggres- 
sion (or  some  other  emotional  element),  incongruity  is  not  very  enjoyable.  Again,  it 
is  important  to  remember  that  any  aggression  in  humor  is  only  playful  and  not  nec- 
essarily "serious"  (Gruner,  1997). 


The  importance  of  noncognitive  factors  in  humor  was  also  emphasized  by  Arthur 
Koestler  (1964),  whose  concept  of  bisociation  is  often  seen  as  the  basis  of  contempo- 
rary incongruity  theories.  He  spoke  of  the  "aggressive-defensive  or  self-asserting  ten- 
dency" in  humor  (p.  52),  and  suggested  that,  to  be  humorous,  bisociation  must  be 
accompanied  by  at  least  a  tinge  of  aggression.  It  is  likely  an  exaggeration  to  say  that 
all  humor  involves  aggression,  but  it  does  seem  accurate  to  say  that  it  involves  an  emo- 
tional experience  that  can  be  intensified  by  a  range  of  emotion-arousing  topics.  Other 
emotion-arousing  topics  besides  aggression  seem  to  work  as  well,  including  sex  and 
just  plain  exuberant  fun.  As  Suls  (1983)  rather  tentatively  acknowledged,  incongruity- 
based  cognitive  theories  appear  to  be  theories  of  humor  comprehension  but  not  humor 
appreciation.  They  describe  the  elements  needed  to  understand  and  "get"  the  joke,  but 
they  do  not  explain  the  emotional  aspects  that  make  the  humorous  experience  so 


Overview  of  the  Theory 

As  noted  in  Chapter  1,  humor  is  a  playful,  nonserious  activity.  Chimpanzees  laugh 
in  the  context  of  rough-and-tumble  play  and  tickling,  suggesting  that  laughter  in  our 
common  ancestry  with  chimpanzees  was  likely  also  associated  with  play.  Laughter  in 
children  also  occurs  most  frequently  in  the  context  of  play,  and  humor  can  be  seen  as 
a  way  for  adults  to  continue  to  engage  in  playful  activities,  using  words  and  ideas  as 
playthings.  However,  surprisingly  few  of  the  early  theorists  recognized  the  essentially 
playful  nature  of  humor.  One  exception  was  Max  Eastman  (1936),  who  stated  that 
"humor  is  play  . . .  Therefore  no  definition  of  humor,  no  theory  of  wit,  no  explana- 
tion of  comic  laughter,  will  ever  stand  up,  which  is  not  based  upon  the  distinction 
between  playful  and  serious"  (p.  15).  He  pointed  out  that,  from  reading  the  serious- 
sounding  descriptions  of  humor  written  by  many  of  the  past  theorists,  one  would  not 
know  that  humor  is  a  playful,  lighthearted  activity.  More  recently,  Berlyne  (1969) 
noted  the  close  connection  between  humor  and  play,  and  Gruner  (1997)  emphasized 
the  playful  nature  of  humorous  aggression.  William  Fry  (1963)  also  viewed  humor  as 
essentially  a  form  of  play. 

The  idea  of  humor  as  play  is  made  explicit  in  the  theory  of  humor  proposed  by 
the  Anglo-American  psychologist  Michael  Apter  (1982;  Apter  and  Smith,  1977), 
which  is  derived  from  a  broader  theory  of  motivation  and  personality  called  reversal 
theory  (Apter,  2001).  Although  not  as  well  known  as  the  other  theories  I  have  dis- 
cussed, Apter's  theory  of  humor  is  quite  comprehensive,  incorporating  many  of  the 
strengths  of  other  theories,  and  can  account  for  many  of  the  research  findings.  I 
include  it  here  because  I  view  it  as  a  promising  framework  for  an  integrative  theory 
of  humor. 

What  is  play?  According  to  Apter  (1991),  it  is  "a  state  of  mind,  a  way  of  seeing 
and  being,  a  special  mental  'set'  towards  the  world  and  one's  actions  in  it"  (p.  3 1).  To 


experience  humor,  we  need  to  be  in  this  playful  state  of  mind.  He  suggested  that  play 
is  characterized  by  a  "protective  frame,"  which  is  a  "psychological  safety  zone"  that 
we  create  to  isolate  ourselves  from  the  serious  concerns  of  the  real  world.  In  play, 
stated  Apter  (p.  14): 

we  seem  to  create  a  small  and  manageable  private  world  which  we  may,  of  course  share  with  others; 
and  this  world  is  one  in  which,  temporarily  at  least,  nothing  outside  has  any  significance,  and  into 
which  the  outside  world  of  real  problems  cannot  properly  impinge.  If  the  "real  world"  does  enter 
in  some  way,  it  is  transformed  and  sterilized  in  the  process  so  that  it  is  no  longer  truly  itself,  and 
can  do  no  harm. 

Apter  refers  to  this  playful  frame  of  mind  as  the  paratelic  state,  to  distinguish  it  from 
the  telic  (goal-directed)  state  that  underlies  more  serious  activities.  He  suggests  that 
we  reverse  back  and  forth  between  these  two  states  of  mind  at  different  times  through- 
out a  typical  day  (hence  the  name  reversal  theory). 

In  the  serious,  telic  state,  one  is  concerned  primarily  with  attaining  important 
goals,  while  the  means  to  achieve  the  goals  are  secondary.  In  contrast,  in  the  playful, 
paratelic  state,  one's  goals  are  of  secondary  importance,  and  the  ongoing  activities  are 
enjoyed  for  their  own  sake.  The  telic  state  is  future-oriented,  whereas  the  paratelic 
state  is  present-oriented.  With  regard  to  the  relation  between  arousal  and  emotion, 
Apter  rejected  traditional  optimal  arousal  theories  such  as  Berlyne's  (discussed  earlier). 
Instead,  he  suggested  that  arousal  is  experienced  differently  depending  on  whether 
one  is  in  the  telic  or  the  paratelic  state.  In  the  telic  state,  high  arousal  is  unpleasant 
(anxiety)  and  low  arousal  is  preferred  (relaxation),  whereas  in  the  paratelic  state,  low 
arousal  is  unpleasant  (boredom)  and  high  arousal  is  enjoyable  (excitement). 

Apter  (1992)  described  the  many  ways  in  which  people  seek  to  increase  their  level 
of  arousal  in  the  paratelic  state  by  means  of  exciting  activities  such  as  riding  on  roller 
coasters,  hang  gliding,  and  taking  other  kinds  of  risks.  Even  normally  negative  emo- 
tions can  be  experienced  as  exciting  and  enjoyable  when  one  is  in  the  paratelic  state, 
as  demonstrated  by  the  popularity  of  horror  movies.  As  a  paratelic  activity,  humor 
also  involves  the  enjoyment  of  arousal.  According  to  Apter  (1982),  emotionally  arous- 
ing elements  that  may  be  present  in  humor,  such  as  sexual  and  aggressive  themes,  are 
a  means  of  enhancing  these  pleasurable  feelings  of  arousal  and  thus  making  the  humor 
seem  funnier.  Similarly,  humor  involving  topics  that  would  normally  arouse  feelings 
of  horror,  revulsion,  or  disgust  (such  as  humorous  parodies  of  horror  movies,  "sick" 
jokes,  etc.)  may  be  enjoyed  because  of  the  way  these  normally  negative  emotions  add 
to  the  pleasurable  arousal  when  one  is  in  a  playful  frame  of  mind.  Thus,  this  theory 
accounts  for  the  "tendentious"  aspects  of  humor  in  terms  of  their  arousal-boosting 
effects.  It  is  also  consistent  with  the  research  findings  discussed  earlier  indicating  that 
greater  levels  of  physiological  arousal  are  associated  with  greater  enjoyment  of  humor, 
and  that  residual  arousal  from  exposure  to  either  positive  or  negative  emotional  mate- 
rial increases  subsequent  enjoyment  of  humor. 

Reversal  theory  also  addresses  the  cognitive  aspects  of  humor  that  are  the  focus 
of  incongruity  theories.  Apter  (1982)  used  the  concept  of  "synergy"  to  describe  a  cog- 
nitive process  in  which  two  contradictory  ideas  or  concepts  about  the  same  object  are 


held  in  one's  mind  at  the  same  time.  This  is  very  similar  to  Koestler's  (1964)  concept 
of  bisociation,  discussed  earlier.  Like  Koestler,  Apter  believes  that  this  process  occurs 
in  artistic  creativity  and  aesthetic  enjoyment,  as  well  as  in  humor.  In  the  playful, 
paratelic  state,  according  to  Apter,  synergies  are  found  to  be  enjoyable  and,  like  the 
collative  properties  in  Berlyne's  theory,  they  are  thought  to  increase  arousal.  Apter 
disagrees  with  incongruity-resolution  theories,  suggesting  instead  that  humor  involves 
the  simultaneous  recognition  of  incongruous  or  contradictory  viewpoints,  rather  than 
the  removal  (resolution)  of  an  incongruity.  He  argues  that  the  punch  line  of  a  joke 
functions  to  create  an  incongruous  synergy  rather  than  resolving  it. 

Although  humor  and  art  both  involve  these  kinds  of  cognitive  synergies  or  incon- 
gruities, Apter  suggests  that  the  difference  between  the  two  is  that  in  humor  one  of 
the  simultaneously  held  viewpoints  involves  a  diminishment  or  devaluation  of  the 
object  being  considered,  whereas  in  art  the  object  is  elevated.  Thus,  the  incongruity 
occurring  in  humor  makes  us  see  a  person,  object,  action,  or  situation  as  less  impor- 
tant, dignified,  serious,  valuable,  worthy  of  respect,  etc.,  than  what  at  first  appeared. 
Without  diminishment,  an  incongruity  or  synergy  is  not  funny.  Although  not  men- 
tioned in  most  incongruity  theories,  this  diminishment  idea  was  proposed  in  the  nine- 
teenth century  by  Herbert  Spencer,  who  stated  that  "laughter  naturally  results  only 
when  consciousness  is  unawares  transferred  from  great  things  to  small — only  when 
there  is  what  we  may  call  a  descending  incongruity"  (from  The  Physiology  of  Laughter, 
reprinted  in  Morreall,  1987,  p.  108,  emphasis  in  original).  Thus,  Apter  accounts  for 
the  aggressive  elements  frequently  occurring  in  humor  (which  are  the  focus  of  supe- 
riority/disparagement theories)  by  suggesting  that  disparagement  in  humor  is  one  way 
of  creating  diminishment.  However,  Apter  disagrees  with  the  view  of  superiority 
theorists  that  humor  always  involves  aggression  or  disparagement,  since  diminishment 
does  not  need  to  be  aggressive:  it  can  simply  be  a  perception  of  something  as  more 
mundane  or  trivial  than  it  first  appeared. 

In  sum,  Apter's  theory  proposes  that  humor  involves  the  perception  of  a  cogni- 
tive synergy  (i.e.,  two  concurrent  but  contradictory  interpretations  of  the  same  object), 
in  which  the  second  interpretation  of  an  object  involves  a  diminishment  relative  to 
the  first,  which  is  experienced  in  a  playful,  or  paratelic,  state  of  mind.  The  individual 
is  either  already  in  this  playful  frame  before  encountering  the  humorous  event,  or  the 
event  itself  causes  him  or  her  to  switch  into  the  paratelic  state.  Environmental  cues, 
such  as  the  laughter  of  other  people  or  their  amusing  facial  expressions  may  help  to 
induce  the  paratelic  frame  of  mind.  Arousal  associated  with  emotional  elements  in  the 
joke  or  situation  (and  also  induced  by  laughter  itself)  contributes  to  the  experience  of 
enjoyment  of  the  humor.  Such  arousal-increasing  elements  include  surprise,  sex, 
violence,  taboo  topics,  and  disgust.  Humor  is  also  enhanced  by  multiple  synergies 
occurring  simultaneously  or  within  a  short  period  of  time,  especially  if  they  are  inter- 
connected and  play  off  each  other  to  produce  further  comic  effects  (A.  S.  Coulson, 

Psychologists  Robert  Wyer  and  James  Collins  (1992;  see  also  Wyer,  2004),  at  the 
University  of  Illinois,  have  developed  a  "comprehension-elaboration  theory"  of 
humor  that  reformulates  and  extends  Apter's  synergy  concept  in  terms  of  social 


cognition  using  schema  theory  (which  will  be  discussed  in  more  detail  in  the  next 
chapter).  They  extended  Apter's  theory  by  examining  the  way  people  comprehend 
humor  within  a  social  context  and  exploring  information-processing  factors  such  as 
comprehension  difficulty  and  cognitive  elaboration.  They  suggested  that  humor  is 
enhanced  when  it  requires  a  moderate  degree  of  mental  effort  to  understand  it,  rather 
than  being  too  easy  or  too  difficult  to  understand,  and  when  there  is  greater  oppor- 
tunity to  elaborate  the  cognitive  synergies  involved.  Wyer  and  Collins  (1992,  p.  667) 
used  the  following  joke  to  illustrate  the  ideas  of  reversal  theory: 

A  young  Catholic  priest  is  walking  through  town  when  he  is  accosted  by  a  prostitute.  "How  about 
a  quickie  for  twenty  dollars?"  she  asks. 

The  priest,  puzzled,  shakes  her  off  and  continues  on  his  way,  only  to  be  stopped  by  another  pros- 
titute. "Twenty  dollars  for  a  quickie,"  she  offers.  Again,  he  breaks  free  and  goes  up  the  street. 

Later,  as  he  is  nearing  his  home  in  the  country,  he  meets  a  nun.  "Pardon  me,  sister,"  he  asks,  "but 
what's  a  quickie?" 

"Twenty  dollars,"  she  says,  "The  same  as  it  is  in  town." 

The  synergy  in  this  joke  involves  the  sudden  shift  in  interpretation  brought  about  by 
the  punch  line.  The  joke  setup  leads  us  to  believe  that  the  priest's  question,  "What's 
a  quickie?"  should  be  interpreted  as  "What  does  'a  quickie'  mean?'  However,  the  nun's 
reply  introduces  a  different  interpretation,  namely,  "How  much  does  a  quickie  cost?" 
There  is  also  a  second  shift  in  interpretation  from  our  perception  of  the  woman  as 
being  a  nun  to  being  a  prostitute.  In  each  of  these  contradictory  perceptions,  both 
interpretations  are  held  simultaneously.  The  diminishment  criterion  is  satisfied  by  the 
fact  that  the  nun,  who  is  first  seen  as  a  chaste  and  holy  woman,  turns  out  to  be  a  pros- 
titute on  the  side.  Although  not  mentioned  by  Wyer  and  Collins,  this  joke  also 
includes  a  sexual  theme  that  may  add  to  its  enjoyment.  The  contemplation  of  a  usually 
chaste  nun  as  a  sexually  loose  woman  may  be  somewhat  titillating.  Any  associated 
increases  in  arousal  would  enhance  the  feelings  of  amusement. 

Like  Apter  (1982),  Wyer  and  Collins  (1992)  emphasized  the  importance  of  taking 
the  social  context  of  humor  into  account,  pointing  out  that  humor  is  primarily  a  form 
of  social  communication.  For  example,  they  explained  the  findings  of  research  using 
the  weight  judgment  paradigm  (discussed  earlier)  in  terms  of  cognitive  reinterpreta- 
tion  and  diminishment  in  a  social  context.  They  suggested  that  participants  in  these 
experiments,  on  picking  up  a  weight  that  is  much  heavier  or  lighter  than  the  previ- 
ous ones,  begin  to  infer  that  they  are  being  tricked  and  that  the  experiment  is  not  a 
serious  study  of  weight  judgment  after  all.  In  other  words,  the  participants  reinter- 
pret the  entire  social  situation  of  the  experiment,  and  not  just  the  weights,  perceiv- 
ing it  to  be  less  important  than  they  had  originally  viewed  it  to  be,  and  this 
reinterpretation  elicits  amusement.  Wyer  and  Collins  went  on  to  discuss  in  some 
detail  the  ways  in  which  their  elaboration  of  reversal  theory  can  be  used  to  explain  all 
types  of  humor,  including  conversational  witticisms  (irony,  satire,  teasing,  puns),  unin- 
tentional humor  (slips  of  the  tongue,  clumsy  actions),  and  slapstick  comedy,  in  addi- 
tion to  a  wide  variety  of  joke  types.  A  detailed  explanation  of  their  theory  and  its 
applications  is  outside  the  scope  of  the  present  discussion.  I  will  return  to  some  of 
these  ideas  in  the  next  chapter. 



Many  of  the  research  findings  discussed  earlier  can  be  viewed  as  supportive  of  the 
reversal  theory  account  of  humor.  As  already  noted,  research  indicating  a  positive 
linear  correlation  between  physiological  arousal  and  enjoyment  of  humor  (rather  than 
a  curvilinear  relationship)  is  more  consistent  with  reversal  theory  than  with  optimal 
arousal  theories  (e.g.,  Godkewitsch,  1976).  The  theory  is  also  supported  by  "transfer 
of  excitation"  research  showing  that  residual  arousal  from  both  positive  and  negative 
emotions  can  subsequently  enhance  the  enjoyment  of  humor  (Cantor  et  al.,  1974). 
The  study  by  Shurcliff  (1968),  in  which  subjects  who  expected  to  remove  a  rat 
from  a  cage  found  a  rubber  toy  instead,  is  also  consistent  with  reversal  theory.  The 
discovery  of  the  rubber  toy  leads  to  a  reinterpretation  of  the  situation  that  entails  a 
diminishment  of  its  seriousness  and  importance  as  a  scientific  experiment,  inducing  a 
shift  to  the  paratelic  mode,  and  the  amount  of  anxiety-related  arousal  generated  pre- 
viously influences  the  degree  to  which  the  humor  is  enjoyed.  Nerhardt's  (1976)  initial 
difficulties  in  eliciting  mirth  with  the  weight  judgment  paradigm  in  the  context  of  a 
railroad  station  also  point  to  the  importance  of  the  mental  set  of  the  participant  for 
humor  to  occur.  Reversal  theory  would  suggest  that  these  subjects,  engaged  in  the 
goal-oriented  activity  of  traveling  from  one  place  to  another,  were  in  the  telic  state, 
and  were  unable  to  switch  into  the  paratelic  state  that  is  necessary  for  humor. 

A  study  by  Mio  and  Graesser  (1991),  although  designed  to  test  disparagement 
theory  using  metaphors,  can  also  be  viewed  as  a  test  of  the  diminishment  hypothesis 
in  reversal  theory.  In  this  study,  undergraduate  students  were  asked  to  rate  the 
funniness  of  a  number  of  metaphor  pairs.  One  metaphor  in  each  pair  disparaged 
the  topic  of  the  sentence,  whereas  the  other  one  uplifted  the  topic.  Consistent  with 
the  diminishment  hypothesis,  the  disparaging  metaphors  were  perceived  to  be  more 
humorous  than  their  uplifting  counterparts. 

In  one  of  my  own  studies,  I  found  a  significant  negative  correlation  between  the 
Telic  Dominance  Scale  and  several  measures  of  sense  of  humor,  indicating  that  people 
who  are  more  likely  to  be  in  the  paratelic  state  at  any  given  time  also  tend  to  laugh 
and  smile  more  frequently,  to  notice  humorous  aspects  of  the  environment,  to  enjoy 
humor,  and  to  use  humor  in  coping  with  stress  (R.  A.  Martin,  1984).  Similar  results 
were  also  found  by  Ruch  (1994).  Svebak  and  Apter  (1987)  also  found  that  the  pre- 
sentation of  humorous  material  was  likely  to  induce  the  paratelic  state  even  in  indi- 
viduals who  normally  tend  to  remain  in  the  telic  state.  These  findings  support  the 
view  that  humor  is  associated  with  the  playful  paratelic  state. 

Wyer  and  Collins  (1992)  also  described  two  studies  that  were  designed  to  test 
some  of  the  hypotheses  of  reversal  theory.  In  one  of  these,  participants  read  stories 
that  could  be  interpreted  in  two  different  ways,  one  of  which  was  less  likely  to  be 
identified  spontaneously  than  the  other.  In  each  case,  the  less  obvious  interpretation 
was  more  mundane,  and  therefore  involved  a  diminishment  of  importance.  One  story, 
for  example,  appeared  to  be  about  two  people  planning  a  murder,  but  it  could  also  be 
interpreted  as  a  discussion  of  the  difficulties  encountered  in  opening  a  pickle  jar. 
Another  story  appeared  to  be  the  comments  of  a  man  making  love  to  a  woman,  but 


could  also  be  interpreted  as  washing  a  dog.  In  different  versions  of  the  story,  cues 
were  inserted  to  make  the  subordinate  theme  more  or  less  obvious.  The  participants 
were  instructed  either  to  read  the  stories  for  understanding  (as  they  would  read  a  mag- 
azine article)  or  to  read  them  with  the  goal  of  evaluating  their  humor,  and  all  subjects 
were  later  asked  to  rate  their  fimniness. 

As  predicted  by  reversal  theory,  the  participants  were  more  likely  to  rate  the 
stories  as  amusing  when  statements  activating  the  subordinate  theme  were  included, 
and  this  difference  was  more  pronounced  in  the  story  comprehension  condition  than 
in  the  humor  evaluation  condition.  The  latter  rinding,  which  seems  counterintuitive, 
is  explained  by  reversal  theory  on  the  basis  of  the  motivational  state  of  the  subjects. 
Those  who  were  instructed  to  read  the  stories  with  a  goal  in  mind  were  more  likely 
to  be  in  the  serious,  goal-oriented  telic  state,  even  though  this  goal  involved  making 
a  humor  judgment.  They  would  therefore  be  less  likely  to  respond  to  humor  than 
would  those  who  read  the  stories  without  a  specific  goal,  an  activity  that  is  more  com- 
patible with  the  playful,  paratelic  state.  Incidentally,  these  findings  raise  questions 
about  much  of  the  humor  appreciation  research  conducted  over  several  decades,  in 
which  subjects  have  been  instructed  to  evaluate  the  fimniness  of  various  stimuli,  where 
a  serious  telic  state  of  mind  may  have  interfered  with  the  enjoyment  of  the  humor. 
This  may  explain  in  part  why  fimniness  ratings  have  usually  been  quite  low  in  such 

In  a  second  experiment,  Wyer  and  Collins  (1992)  presented  participants  with  vari- 
ants of  the  "quickie"  joke  about  the  priest  and  nun.  In  the  different  versions,  they 
selectively  removed  one  or  the  other  of  the  alternative  interpretations  of  the  priest's 
question  and  of  the  nun's  identity.  In  addition,  in  some  versions,  the  second  inter- 
pretation of  the  nun  as  a  prostitute  replaced  the  first  (as  in  incongruity-resolution 
theory),  whereas  in  other  versions  the  two  contradictory  interpretations  (nun  and 
prostitute)  continued  to  apply  simultaneously.  Differences  in  participants'  funniness 
ratings  of  the  different  joke  versions  supported  the  prediction  that  the  effects  on 
funniness  of  the  two  shifts  in  meaning  to  more  mundane  interpretations  were  inde- 
pendent and  additive.  However,  no  support  was  found  for  the  prediction  that 
the  simultaneous  retention  of  the  two  interpretations  would  be  funnier  than  the 
replacement  of  one  interpretation  by  the  other.  Further  research  with  a  wider  range 
of  humor  stimuli  is  needed  to  provide  more  definitive  tests  of  this  reversal  theory 


The  account  of  humor  provided  by  reversal  theory  integrates  many  of  the  ideas 
from  the  other  theories  that  I  have  discussed.  Like  psychoanalytic  and  superiority  the- 
ories, it  provides  an  explanation  for  aggressive,  sexual,  and  other  emotional  elements 
in  humor.  These  components  are  seen  as  functioning  to  increase  arousal,  which  is 
experienced  as  enjoyable  and  exciting  when  one  is  in  the  playful  frame  of  mind  asso- 
ciated with  humor.  As  well,  this  theory  explains  the  enjoyment  of  humor  and  people's 
strong  motivation  for  engaging  in  it  in  terms  of  the  enjoyment  of  play.  The  theory 


appears  to  be  more  consistent  with  research  findings  on  the  role  of  arousal  in  humor 
appreciation  than  are  optimal  arousal  theories  such  as  Berlyne's.  With  further  devel- 
opments of  the  theory  proposed  by  Wyer  and  Collins  (1992)  and  by  Wyer  (2004),  it 
also  provides  a  framework  for  understanding  cognitive  processes  in  many  different 
forms  of  everyday  humor  and  not  just  jokes.  Unlike  most  of  the  other  theories  that 
we  have  discussed,  this  theory  also  focuses  more  explicitly  on  the  social  context  in 
which  humor  occurs.  Thus,  it  opens  the  door  to  examinations  of  humor  as  a  form  of 
interpersonal  communication  from  the  perspective  of  social  psychology  (which  I  will 
explore  in  Chapter  5). 

The  reversal  theory  of  humor  also  provides  an  account  of  the  role  of  humor  in 
coping  with  stress  (Svebak  and  Martin,  1997).  The  capacity  of  humorous  synergies  to 
induce  the  paratelic  state  may  make  it  possible  for  stressful  situations  to  be  experi- 
enced as  challenges  to  be  approached  in  a  playful  way  rather  than  as  serious  threats 
(R.  A.  Martin,  Kuiper,  Olinger,  and  Dobbin,  1987).  In  addition,  the  diminishment 
aspect  of  humorous  synergies  means  that  humor  may  be  used  to  reframe  anxiety- 
arousing  events  or  problems  as  less  threatening  than  they  first  appear  (Kuiper  et  al., 
1993).  Although  reversal  theory  is  not  as  widely  known  among  humor  researchers,  it 
offers  a  number  of  hypotheses  that  are  deserving  of  further  investigation. 

More  generally,  the  view  of  humor  as  play  reminds  us  that  humor  is  a  nonseri- 
ous,  playful  activity  that  differs  from  more  serious  modes  of  thinking.  Many  of  the 
theories  of  humor  seem  to  forget  this  fact,  describing  the  cognitive  processes  involved 
in  humor  comprehension  as  though  they  had  to  do  with  serious  information  pro- 
cessing. A  play  view  of  humor  suggests  that  jokes  may  be  viewed  as  a  way  of  playing 
with  cognitive  structures  and  mechanisms,  which  have  evolved  in  humans  for  the  nor- 
mally "serious"  purpose  of  making  sense  and  surviving  in  the  world,  but  in  humor  are 
temporarily  being  manipulated  "for  fun."  Both  the  teller  and  the  listener  of  a  joke  are 
collaborating  in  a  playful  activity,  in  which  multiple  interpretations  of  events  are  acti- 
vated and  elaborated  in  an  enjoyable  way  by  introducing  an  incongruous  element  into 
the  narrative.  In  more  spontaneous  forms  of  humor,  people  may  play  with  language 
and  ideas  or  use  humor  to  playfully  tease  one  another.  However,  although  humor  is 
playful  and  nonserious,  this  does  not  mean  that  it  does  not  have  serious  functions. 
For  example,  humorous  teasing  may  be  a  way  of  expressing  disapproval  or  criticism 
to  another  person  in  a  way  that  would  be  difficult  to  do  using  a  serious  mode  of  dis- 
course. If  the  criticism  is  not  well  received,  one  can  always  say  that  one  was  "just 
joking."  These  sorts  of  interpersonal  functions  of  humor  will  be  examined  in  more 
detail  in  Chapter  5. 


Each  of  the  theories  that  we  have  examined  in  these  two  chapters  contributes  a 
useful  perspective,  highlighting  certain  aspects  of  humor.  By  combining  elements 
from  all  of  the  theories,  we  obtain  a  more  complete  understanding  of  this  multi- 
faceted  phenomenon.  Psychoanalytic  theory  calls  our  attention  to  the  predominance 


of  aggressive  and  sexual  themes  in  many  jokes,  the  feelings  of  emotional  pleasure  and 
enjoyment  that  are  engendered  by  humor,  and  the  strong  motivation  that  most  people 
therefore  experience  for  engaging  in  it.  It  also  suggests  that  some  of  the  elements  con- 
tributing to  our  enjoyment  of  humor  may  be  outside  our  conscious  awareness.  Supe- 
riority/disparagement theories  emphasize  the  social  and  emotional  aspects  of  humor 
and  call  attention  to  its  paradoxical  nature,  combining  both  prosocial  and  aggressive 
elements.  This  approach  also  provides  a  theoretical  basis  for  views  of  humor  as  a  way 
of  asserting  a  sense  of  victory  over  the  people  and  situations  that  threaten  us,  mastery 
over  the  circumstances  of  life  that  can  otherwise  oppress  us,  and  liberation  from  life's 

Arousal  theories  underscore  the  view  that  humor  represents  a  complex  mind-body 
interaction  of  cognition  and  emotion  that  is  rooted  in  the  biological  substrates  of 
our  brain  and  nervous  system.  Incongruity  theories  shed  light  on  the  cognitive- 
perceptual  processes  involved  in  humor,  the  way  it  causes  us  to  view  people,  situa- 
tions, and  events  from  the  perspective  of  two  or  more  incongruous  and  seemingly 
incompatible  perspectives  at  the  same  time.  Finally,  the  reversal  theory  perspective 
combines  many  of  the  elements  of  the  other  theories,  emphasizing  that  humor  is  a 
form  of  play  in  which  incongruities  are  enjoyed  for  their  own  sake  in  the  context  of 
our  interactions  with  other  people.  It  also  highlights  the  diverse  ways  we  experience 
humor,  including  jokes,  nonverbal  humor,  conversational  witticisms,  and  the  humor- 
ous outlook  on  the  adversities  of  life  that  forms  the  basis  of  humor  as  a  coping 

Our  review  of  the  early  psychological  research  on  humor  provides  an  introduc- 
tion to  the  empirical  methods  that  have  been  used  by  researchers  to  answer  age-old 
philosophical  questions  about  humor.  Based  on  the  findings  of  these  early  studies,  as 
well  as  theoretical  and  methodological  developments  in  other  areas  of  psychology,  the 
theories  and  research  methods  used  by  humor  researchers  have  evolved  over  the  years. 
Some  of  the  ideas  and  methodologies  of  these  early  studies  now  seem  outdated,  and 
many  of  the  answers  they  provided  are  still  only  tentative,  but  some  patterns  have 
emerged.  These  studies  set  the  stage  for  subsequent  research,  guiding  the  ongoing 
questions  and  pointing  to  potentially  useful  topics  of  investigation.  In  the  following 
chapters,  I  will  discuss  more  recent  developments  in  the  sorts  of  questions,  methods, 
and  findings  of  humor  research  in  each  of  the  branches  of  psychology. 

CHAPTER      4 

The  Cognitive  Psychology 
of  Humor 

We  saw  in  Chapter  1  that  humor  is  a 

form  of  play,  comprising  a  social  context,  a  cognitive  process,  and  an  emotional 
response  that  is  expressed  through  laughter.  In  this  chapter,  we  focus  on  the  cogni- 
tive process,  the  mental  events  leading  to  the  perception  of  incongruity  that  is  the 
basis  of  humor.  What  are  the  mental  processes  involved  in  "getting  a  joke"  or  per- 
ceiving a  situation  or  event  to  be  funny?  In  addition,  we  will  examine  ways  that  humor 
in  turn  affects  other  cognitive  processes,  particularly  memory  and  creative  thinking. 
Are  we  likely  to  remember  humorous  information  better  than  serious  information? 
Does  experiencing  humor  cause  people  to  think  more  creatively? 

These  sorts  of  questions  fall  into  the  domain  of  cognitive  psychology,  which 
has  been  denned  as  "the  study  of  human  mental  processes  and  their  role  in  thinking, 
feeling,  and  behaving"  (Kellogg,  1995,  p.  4).  Cognitive  psychologists  use  experimen- 
tal methods  to  study  how  the  mind  works.  Although  they  recognize  that  the  brain 
does  not  function  exactly  like  an  electronic  computer,  they  often  find  it  useful  to 
employ  a  computer  analogy  in  conceptualizing  mental  processes.  Thus,  they  take  an 
information  processing  approach  to  understand  how  information  is  taken  in  through 
our  sensory  organs,  encoded,  stored  and  retrieved  from  memory,  and  used  in  the 
comprehension  and  production  of  language,  problem  solving,  creativity,  decision 
making,  and  reasoning.  In  short,  cognitive  psychology  is  concerned  with  mental 
representations  of  meaning  and  the  mental  processes  that  operate  on  those 



For  the  most  part,  cognitive  psychologists  have  not  taken  much  interest  in  the 
study  of  humor.  Indeed,  an  examination  of  the  subject  indexes  of  cognitive  psychol- 
ogy textbooks  reveals  almost  no  references  to  humor,  laughter,  or  related  topics.  This 
is  because  most  cognitive  psychologists  tend  to  be  interested  in  more  basic  mental 
processes  such  as  attention,  perception,  memory,  and  so  on.  However,  one  subarea 
within  this  field  where  there  is  some  interest  in  humor  is  psycholinguistics.  As  the 
name  suggests,  this  is  the  study  of  cognitive  processes  involved  in  language  compre- 
hension and  production.  Since  much  humor  is  based  on  language,  psycholinguistics 
is  a  natural  domain  for  the  cognitive  study  of  humor.  In  particular,  some  researchers 
within  this  field  who  study  nonliteral  language  (e.g.,  metaphor)  have  been  interested 
in  humorous  types  of  nonliteral  language  such  as  irony  (e.g.,  Colston,  Giora,  and  Katz, 
2000;  Giora,  Fein,  and  Schwartz,  1998)  and  sarcasm  (e.g.,  Gibbs,  1986;  A.  N.  Katz, 
Blasko,  and  Kazmerski,  2004). 

Cognitive  psychology  is  part  of  a  broader  interdisciplinary  enterprise  known  as 
cognitive  science,  which  also  includes  some  branches  of  neuroscience,  computer 
science  (artificial  intelligence),  and  linguistics.  All  of  these  disciplines  have  also  made 
important  contributions  to  the  study  of  humor,  applying  their  particular  research 
methods  and  theoretical  approaches.  It  would  be  difficult  to  review  the  psychology  of 
humor  without  also  touching  on  the  contributions  of  these  other  disciplines.  In  this 
chapter,  I  will  therefore  also  briefly  review  some  of  the  contributions  to  a  cognitive 
understanding  of  humor  from  the  disciplines  of  linguistics  and  computer  science,  and 
I  will  explore  the  contributions  of  neuroscience  in  Chapter  6. 

We  saw  in  Chapter  3  that  cognitive  theories  of  humor  have  been  proposed  by  a 
number  of  philosophers  since  the  eighteenth  century  (e.g.,  Schopenhauer).  During 
the  1970s,  several  psychological  theories  were  developed  that  attempted  to  provide 
more  rigorous  and  testable  formulations  of  these  ideas  (e.g.,  Rothbart,  1976;  Shultz, 
1976;  Suls,  1972),  and  these  stimulated  a  number  of  psychological  investigations  with 
many  interesting  findings  (e.g.,  Deckers  and  Salais,  1983;  Shultz,  1974b;  Wicker  et 
al.,  1981).  However,  these  theories  were  still  rather  vague  and  not  clearly  specified. 
Over  the  past  two  decades,  there  has  been  a  flurry  of  renewed  theoretical  activity 
coming  particularly  from  scholars  in  linguistics  (e.g.,  Attardo,  1994;  Raskin,  1985), 
but  also  in  psycholinguistics  (e.g.,  Giora,  1991)  and  computer  science  (e.g.,  Ritchie, 
2004).  These  formulations,  based  on  theoretical,  empirical,  and  methodological 
advances  in  other  areas  of  their  respective  disciplines,  have  generated  new  hypotheses 
about  cognitive  aspects  of  humor  that  have  only  begun  to  be  investigated  by  psy- 
chologists (e.g.,  Vaid,  Hull,  Heredia,  Gerkens,  and  Martinez,  2003).  These  advances 
will  hopefully  stimulate  further  interest  among  psychologists  in  the  study  of  cogni- 
tive processes  in  humor. 

In  this  chapter,  I  will  first  review  ways  in  which  cognitive  theorists  have  made  use 
of  concepts  from  schema  theory  to  understand  how  we  mentally  process  humorous 
incongruities.  Then  I  will  briefly  look  at  some  of  the  schema-based  theories  proposed 
in  recent  years  by  linguists.  I  will  then  discuss  some  of  the  research  methods  that  have 
been  developed  by  cognitive  psychologists  to  study  schemas  and  related  cognitive 
processes,  and  will  describe  some  applications  of  these  methods  to  the  study  of  how 


we  understand  humorous  information,  such  as  jokes  and  ironic  statements.  After  this 
overview  of  research  on  cognitive  mechanisms  and  processes  in  humor  comprehen- 
sion, I  will  discuss  research  that  has  looked  at  the  effects  of  humor  on  other  aspects 
of  cognition,  particularly  memory  and  creativity.  Next,  I  will  discuss  the  contributions 
of  artificial  intelligence  researchers  in  the  field  of  computer  science.  Finally,  I  will 
comment  on  the  implications  of  a  view  of  humor  as  a  form  of  cognitive  play. 


As  we  saw  in  the  last  chapter,  cognitively  oriented  theorists  and  researchers  generally 
view  some  type  of  incongruity  as  being  a  defining  characteristic  of  humor.  Arthur 
Koestler's  (1964)  concept  ofbisociation  is  an  early  formulation  of  incongruity,  in  which 
a  situation,  person,  event,  or  idea  is  simultaneously  perceived  from  the  perspective  of 
two  self-consistent  but  normally  incompatible  or  disparate  frames  of  reference.  Apter's 
(1982)  concept  of  cognitive  synergy  has  a  similar  meaning:  two  incompatible  or  even 
contradictory  interpretations  of  the  same  object  or  event  are  active  in  the  mind  at  the 
same  time.  Typically,  humor  begins  with  one  interpretation  of  the  situation,  and  then 
a  second  contradictory  interpretation  is  suddenly  activated. 

Theorists  have  debated  about  whether  incongruity  alone  is  sufficient  for  humor 
(Nerhardt,  1977),  or  whether  incongruity  must  also  be  resolved  in  some  way  for  it  to 
be  funny  (Shultz,  1972;  Suls,  1972).  As  we  saw  in  Chapter  3,  research  evidence  sug- 
gests that  incongruity-resolution  theories  may  apply  to  certain  types  of  jokes,  but  do 
not  appear  to  account  for  all  forms  of  humor  (e.g.,  Nerhardt,  1977).  Some  theorists 
have  also  suggested  that  the  incongruity  must  occur  suddenly  (Suls,  1983),  must  take 
place  in  an  emotionally  pleasant,  safe,  and  nonthreatening  context  (Rothbart,  1976), 
must  involve  an  extreme  or  bizarre  discrepancy  (Berlyne,  1972),  or  must  be  perceived 
in  a  playful,  nonserious  frame  of  mind  (Apter,  1982).  Wyer  and  Collins  (1992),  fol- 
lowing Apter  (1982),  suggested  that,  for  an  incongruity  to  be  funny,  the  second  inter- 
pretation that  is  activated  must  involve  diminishment,  that  is,  the  situation  or  event 
must  be  viewed  as  less  important,  valuable,  or  admirable  than  the  view  provided  by 
the  initial  interpretation. 

Schemas,  Frames,  and  Scripts 

How  might  these  concepts  of  incongruity  be  understood  from  the  perspective  of  cog- 
nitive science?  Cognitive  psychologists  have  conducted  a  great  deal  of  research  on  the 
way  knowledge  is  represented  and  organized  in  our  minds.  These  studies  suggest  that 
information  is  organized  in  knowledge  structures  called  schemas  (Bartlett,  1932; 
Mandler,  1979;  Rumelhart  and  Ortony,  1977).  The  concept  of  a  schema  was  origi- 
nally based  on  the  data  structures  used  in  programming  languages  such  as  Pascal  and 
Lisp  that  were  commonly  employed  in  artificial  intelligence  research  (Ritchie,  2004). 
A  schema  is  a  dynamic  mental  representation  that  enables  us  to  build  mental  models 
of  the  world.  Mandler  (1979)  stated  that  a  schema  "is  formed  on  the  basis  of  past 


experience  with  objects,  scenes,  or  events  and  consists  of  a  set  of  (usually  unconscious) 
expectations  about  what  things  look  like  and/or  the  order  in  which  they  occur" 
(p.  263). 

Schemas  describe  the  general  characteristics  of  an  object  or  event  and  contain 
variables  or  slots  that  can  assume  different  values  in  particular  instances.  For  example, 
a  schema  for  birds  would  include  variables  such  as  the  types  of  wings,  feet,  beaks, 
tails,  and  bodies,  which  may  be  instantiated  in  a  number  of  ways  in  individual  birds. 
Many  different  kinds  of  birds  all  fit  the  general  schema,  with  different  values  for  the 
different  variables.  The  variables  often  contain  default  values  that  represent  the 
prototypical  characteristic  of  the  object  or  event.  When  we  catch  a  glimpse  of  a  bird 
or  hear  about  a  bird  in  a  story,  the  schema  for  birds  is  activated,  and,  unless  we  are 
given  information  to  the  contrary,  we  expect  this  particular  bird  to  conform  to  the 
default  values.  The  acceptable  values  of  variables  in  a  given  schema  have  certain 
limits.  If  we  see  a  drawing  of  a  bird  with  wings  that  look  like  airplane  propellers,  this 
would  not  fit  the  expected  values  of  the  bird  schema,  and  would  therefore  be  an 
incongruity,  something  that  "does  not  compute"  with  respect  to  our  mental  model  of 

Frames  (Minsky,  1977)  and  scripts  (Abelson,  1981;  Schank  and  Abelson,  1977) 
are  particular  types  of  schemas  that  relate  to  knowledge  about  the  physical  environ- 
ment and  routine  activities,  respectively.  For  example,  Schank  and  Abelson  (1977) 
described  the  restaurant  script,  which  organizes  information  about  the  normal 
sequence  of  events  involved  in  going  to  a  restaurant  (sitting  at  a  table,  ordering  from 
a  menu,  being  served,  eating,  paying  the  bill,  leaving  the  restaurant,  etc.).  When  we 
hear  a  narrative  about  someone  going  to  a  restaurant,  this  script  is  activated  and  it 
leads  us  to  expect  certain  activities  that  are  normally  associated  with  the  script.  This 
also  makes  it  possible  for  the  narrator  to  leave  out  many  details  that  we  automatically 
fill  in  as  defaults. 

The  script  also  tells  us  what  details  of  the  narrative  are  appropriate  and  relevant, 
and  how  to  evaluate  people's  actions.  As  Wyer  (2004,  p.  199)  noted,  if  we  heard  that 
a  man  went  to  a  restaurant  and  proceeded  to  take  off  his  clothes  and  start  playing  a 
guitar,  this  does  not  fit  with  the  expected  values  in  our  restaurant  script,  and  would 
be  perceived  as  incongruous.  This  would  stimulate  us  to  reassess  the  situation  and 
perhaps  modify  the  script  or  seek  another  script  that  might  account  for  the  informa- 
tion. For  example,  we  might  surmise  that  the  restaurant  was  in  a  nudist  colony  and 
the  man  was  an  entertainer  rather  than  a  patron  of  the  restaurant. 

Applications  of  Schema  Theory  to  Humor 

These  concepts  of  schemas,  frames,  and  scripts  can  be  used  to  explain  the  nature  of 
incongruity  in  humor,  and  a  number  of  psychological  and  linguistic  theories  of  humor, 
based  on  these  ideas,  have  been  proposed  (e.g.,  Norrick,  1986;  Raskin,  1985;  Wyer 
and  Collins,  1992).  In  general,  these  theories  suggest  that,  while  we  are  hearing  the 
setup  of  a  joke,  a  schema  (or  script)  is  activated  to  enable  us  to  make  sense  of  the 
incoming  information.  However,  information  in  the  joke  punch  line  does  not  fit  with 


the  schema,  causing  us  to  search  for  another  schema  that  will  make  better  sense.  This 
second  schema  typically  gives  an  altogether  different  (and  even  contradictory)  inter- 
pretation of  the  situation,  rather  than  just  a  slightly  modified  perspective.  The  second 
script  does  not  completely  replace  the  first  one,  however,  and  so  the  two  are  activated 
simultaneously.  This  simultaneous  activation  of  two  incompatible  scripts  is  the  essence 
of  humorous  incongruity  and  is  experienced  as  enjoyable  and  amusing.  Different 
schema-based  theories  provide  somewhat  different  accounts  of  these  processes,  and 
some  also  attempt  to  account  for  non-joke-related  humor,  such  as  conversational 
witticisms  and  unintentional  humor,  as  well  as  jokes. 

As  an  example  of  a  schema-based  psychological  theory  relating  to  social  cogni- 
tion, Robert  Wyer  and  James  Collins  (1992)  proposed  a  comprehension-elaboration 
theory  of  humor  eli citation  (see  also  Wyer,  2004,  for  farther  discussion  of  the 
model  in  the  context  of  a  broader  theory  of  social  cognition).  They  suggested  that 
humor  involves  the  simultaneous  activation  of  two  different  schemas  to  understand 
the  same  situation  or  event.  In  addition,  humor  is  elicited  only  if  the  second  schema 
to  be  activated  produces  an  interpretation  that  is  diminished  in  value  or  importance 
relative  to  that  of  the  initial  schema.  Thus,  humor  always  involves  reinterpreting  an 
action  or  situation  as  being  less  admirable  and  more  trivial  (i.e.,  less  serious)  than  it 
first  seemed. 

In  addition,  Wyer  and  Collins  proposed  that  the  elicited  humor  is  greatest  when 
an  intermediate  amount  of  time  and  effort  is  required  to  identify  and  apply  the  con- 
cepts necessary  to  activate  the  alternative  schema.  If  it  is  too  difficult  or  too  easy  to 
find  the  second  schema,  less  humor  will  be  elicited.  The  amount  of  humor  elicited 
also  depends  on  the  amount  of  cognitive  elaboration  that  is  generated  concerning  the 
event  and  its  implications.  Cognitive  elaboration  has  to  do  with  the  degree  to  which 
the  activated  schemas  play  back  and  forth  on  each  other,  eliciting  further  concepts 
and  mental  imagery.  The  more  cognitive  elaboration  is  elicited  by  the  humorous 
event,  the  more  it  will  be  enjoyed  and  perceived  to  be  funny.  Wyer  and  Collins  also 
discussed  the  social  context  in  which  humor  occurs,  noting  that  expectations,  norms, 
motives,  and  information-processing  goals  relating  to  speaker  and  listener  roles  need 
to  be  considered  in  explaining  humor  elicitation.  They  showed  how  the  theory  can 
be  applied  to  account  for  humor  not  only  in  jokes  and  funny  narratives,  but  also  in 
witticisms,  ironic  comments,  and  fortuitous  events  that  occur  spontaneously  in  social 

Thus,  the  schema-based  cognitive  theory  proposed  by  Wyer  and  Collins  is  a  very 
comprehensive  one  that  is  intended  to  account  for  all  types  of  humor  and  not  just 
jokes.  It  offers  numerous  interesting  hypotheses  for  future  research.  While  many  of 
their  hypotheses  are  consistent  with  previous  research  findings,  others  still  need  to 
be  tested  empirically.  In  particular,  there  has  been  very  little  research  so  far  address- 
ing the  hypotheses  about  non-joke-related  humor  elicited  spontaneously  in  social 

One  of  their  hypotheses  that  has  not  been  supported  is  the  idea  that  the  funniest 
jokes  are  the  ones  that  take  an  intermediate  amount  of  time  to  process,  whereas  jokes 
that  are  too  easy  or  too  difficult  to  understand  are  less  amusing.  This  would  suggest 


a  curvilinear  (inverted-  U)  relationship  between  difficulty  of  comprehension  and  fun- 
niness.  Contrary  to  this  view,  Peter  Derks  and  his  colleagues  at  the  College  of  William 
and  Mary  found  a  strong  negative  linear  correlation  between  participants'  ratings  of 
the  difficulty  of  comprehension  of  a  series  of  jokes  and  their  rated  funniness,  with  no 
curvilinear  component  (Derks,  Staley,  and  Haselton,  1998).  Thus,  the  easier  a  joke 
was  to  understand,  the  funnier  it  was  rated  to  be. 

Similarly,  two  more  recent  studies  reported  by  William  Cunningham  and  Peter 
Derks  (2005)  showed  that  the  more  quickly  participants  were  able  to  identify  para- 
graphs as  being  jokes,  the  funnier  they  found  them  to  be.  These  authors  suggested 
that  humor  comprehension  should  be  viewed  as  an  automatic,  expert  skill  that  involves 
implicit  and  sophisticated  knowledge  of  language  and  multiple  meanings.  Conse- 
quently, the  more  automatically  accessible  a  humorous  message  is  (due  to  its  personal 
relevance  and  the  expertise  of  the  listener),  the  more  amusing  and  enjoyable  it  is. 
Although  these  findings  suggest  that  some  modifications  of  Wyer  and  Collins'  theory 
are  needed,  they  are  not  a  serious  threat  to  the  theory  as  a  whole. 

In  Chapter  3  I  described  research  on  incongruity  using  the  weight  judgment 
paradigm,  in  which  humor  is  elicited  when  research  participants  lift  weights  that  are 
greatly  discrepant  from  those  in  a  series  of  preceding  trials.  Lambert  Deckers  and 
Robert  Buttram  (1990)  reconceptualized  the  weight  judgment  paradigm  in  terms  of 
schema  theory,  suggesting  that  the  initial  weight  judgments  cause  a  schema  to  be  built 
up,  and  the  final  weight  is  perceived  as  an  incongruity  with  respect  to  this  schema. 
They  also  drew  parallels  between  the  mental  processes  involved  in  the  weight 
judgment  task  and  the  processing  of  jokes.  They  suggested  that  two  kinds  of  incon- 
gruity may  generate  humor:  incongruity  between  an  expected  value  and  the  perceived 
value  of  a  variable  within  a  single  schema  (as  in  the  weight  judgment  paradigm), 
and  incongruity  between  two  different  schemas  (as  occurs  in  most  jokes).  In  either 
case,  they  argued,  it  is  incongruity  that  produces  humor,  and  not  resolution  of 

Wyer  and  Collins  (1992),  however,  conceptualized  the  incongruity  occurring  in 
the  weight  judgment  paradigm  somewhat  differently.  Taking  a  broader  social  cogni- 
tion perspective,  rather  than  focusing  only  on  the  discrepancy  between  the  expected 
weight  and  the  observed  weight,  these  authors  discussed  the  paradigm  in  terms  of  the 
schemas  presumably  involved  in  the  participants'  perceptions  of  the  experimental 
situation  as  a  whole.  Initially,  subjects  view  the  experiment  as  a  serious,  scientific 
enterprise,  but  when  they  encounter  the  extremely  light  or  heavy  weight,  they  begin 
to  suspect  that  the  experimenter  may  be  playing  a  trick  on  them.  After  having  them 
compare  a  number  of  barely  discernible  differences  in  weights,  why  is  the  experi- 
menter suddenly  asking  them  to  test  a  weight  that  is  so  obviously  much  heavier  or 
lighter?  A  new  schema  concerning  the  situation  is  evoked  ("Could  this  be  a  joke?"), 
and  this  schema  is  enough  to  trigger  a  smile  or  chuckle.  In  Apter's  (1982)  terms,  this 
may  also  cause  them  to  momentarily  shift  from  a  serious,  scientific  mode  into  a  playful 
(paratelic)  mode.  Thus,  Wyer  and  Collins'  approach  takes  into  account  the  broader 
social  context  of  all  humor,  instead  of  focusing  narrowly  on  the  immediate  joke  or 
stimulus  as  have  most  past  researchers  and  theorists.  These  competing  hypotheses 


about  the  incongruities  occurring  in  the  weight  judgment  paradigm  could  be  tested 
in  further  research,  perhaps  using  some  of  the  schema-based  methodologies  that  I  will 
describe  shortly. 


In  recent  years,  a  considerable  amount  of  work  has  been  done  by  linguists  in  the  devel- 
opment of  formal  theories  of  humor  (for  a  review,  see  Attardo,  1994).  Not  surpris- 
ingly, linguists  who  are  interested  in  humor  focus  on  types  of  humor  that  are 
communicated  through  language,  rather  than  nonverbal  forms  like  practical  jokes  or 
slapstick  comedy.  Linguistics  comprises  a  number  of  subfields,  including  phonology 
(the  study  of  speech  sounds),  syntax  (grammatical  rules  that  specify  the  acceptable 
form  of  sentences),  semantics  (language  meaning),  and  pragmatics  (rules  for  appro- 
priate social  use  and  interpretation  of  language  in  context).  The  areas  that  are  most 
relevant  to  humor  research  are  semantics  and  pragmatics. 

Linguists  working  in  the  field  of  semantics  are  interested  in  many  of  the  issues 
that  I  have  been  discussing  concerning  the  way  humorous  narratives  ("texts")  are 
processed,  understood,  and  interpreted  as  funny  (e.g.,  Norrick,  1986;  Raskin,  1985). 
In  the  area  of  pragmatics,  linguists  are  interested  in  the  way  humor  is  communicated 
in  everyday  conversation  and  the  functions  of  humorous  communications,  such  as 
joke-telling,  teasing,  and  irony,  in  interpersonal  interactions  (e.g.,  Graham,  Papa,  and 
Brooks,  1992;  Norrick,  2003).  I  will  touch  briefly  on  pragmatics  later  in  this  chapter, 
and  will  examine  it  in  more  detail  in  Chapter  5  in  relation  to  the  social  psychology 
of  humor.  In  this  section  I  will  focus  particularly  on  a  linguistic  theory  from  the  field 
of  semantics. 

The  script-based  semantic  theory  developed  by  linguists  Victor  Raskin,  at  Purdue 
University,  and  Salvatore  Attardo,  at  Youngstown  State  University  (Attardo  and 
Raskin,  1991;  Raskin,  1985),  is  the  most  well-developed  linguistic  theory  of  humor 
and  the  one  that  is  best  known  to  psychologists.  This  theory  attempts  to  model  the 
comprehension  of  verbal  humor,  with  a  particular  focus  on  jokes.  The  theory  incor- 
porates ideas  about  scripts  (discussed  above)  and  was  also  influenced  by  Noam 
Chomksy's  (1957,  1971)  concepts  of  transformational  generative  grammars  for  relat- 
ing the  deep  structure,  or  underlying  meaning,  of  a  text  to  its  surface  structure  (the 
actual  words  that  are  used).  Raskin's  (1985)  original  Semantic  Script  Theory  of  Humor 
(SSTH)  is  meant  to  provide  a  formal  model  of  humor  competence  (i.e.,  how  can  a 
text  be  recognized  as  humorous?). 

The  goal  of  this  theory,  then,  is  to  provide  a  model  of  a  hypothetical 
information-processing  system  that  is  capable  of  making  sense  of  a  humorous  text, 
but  not  necessarily  the  way  humans  actually  do  it.  In  theory,  the  model  could  even- 
tually be  turned  into  a  computer  program  for  processing  humor.  Thus,  in  the  lin- 
guistics approach,  the  concern  is  not  so  much  whether  the  theory  describes  actual 
human  information  processing,  and  therefore  linguists  typically  do  not  conduct  exper- 
iments to  test  their  theories  on  human  subjects.  Instead,  they  use  logical  reasoning  to 


see  whether  the  theory  is  internally  coherent  and  whether  it  accounts  for  a  wide  range 
of  text  examples  (i.e.,  jokes).  The  ideal  test  would  be  to  implement  it  in  a  computer 
program  and  demonstrate  that  it  is  capable  of  distinguishing  between  humorous  and 
nonhumorous  scripts. 

Raskin's  theory  conceives  of  scripts  as  graphs  with  lexical  nodes  and  semantic  links 
between  nodes.  Scripts  are  assumed  to  be  nested  within  scripts  and,  in  theory,  all  the 
scripts  of  the  language  make  up  a  single  continuous  graph,  forming  a  multidimen- 
sional semantic  network  that  contains  all  the  information  a  speaker  has  about  his  or 
her  culture.  Words  in  a  sentence  are  thought  to  evoke  the  script  or  scripts  with  which 
they  are  associated.  The  theory  also  assumes  a  set  of  combinatorial  rules  for  com- 
bining all  the  possible  meanings  of  the  scripts  that  are  evoked  by  a  text,  discarding 
those  that  do  not  yield  a  coherent  reading,  and  coming  up  with  an  overall,  coherent 
meaning  of  the  text. 

Based  on  these  concepts,  Raskin  (1985,  p.  99)  stated  the  main  hypothesis  of  his 
theory  as  follows: 

A  text  can  be  characterized  as  a  single-joke-carrying  text  if  both  of  the  [following]  conditions  . .  . 
are  satisfied:  (i)  The  text  is  compatible,  fully  or  in  part,  with  two  different  scripts;  and  (ii)  the  two 
scripts  with  which  the  text  is  compatible  are  opposite  in  a  special  sense  .  .  . 

Thus,  when  an  individual  is  attempting  to  understand  a  joke,  a  mental  script  is  acti- 
vated to  make  sense  of  the  events  that  are  described  in  the  joke  setup.  However,  the 
punch  line  of  the  joke  introduces  elements  that  are  not  compatible  with  that  original 
script,  triggering  a  switch  from  one  script  to  another.  The  punch  line  makes  the  lis- 
tener backtrack  and  realize  that  a  different  interpretation  (i.e.,  an  alternative  script) 
was  possible  from  the  beginning.  In  order  for  the  text  to  be  viewed  as  humorous,  this 
second,  overlapping  script  must  be  opposite  to  the  first.  There  are  three  general  ways 
in  which  the  scripts  may  be  in  opposition  to  one  another:  actual  versus  nonactual, 
normal  versus  abnormal,  or  possible  versus  impossible.  At  a  more  concrete  level,  script 
oppositions  may  be  manifested  in  terms  of  such  pairs  as  good  versus  bad,  life  versus 
death,  obscene  versus  nonobscene,  money  versus  no  money,  high  stature  versus  low 
stature,  clean  versus  dirty,  intelligent  versus  unintelligent,  and  so  on. 
Raskin  used  the  following  joke  to  illustrate  how  the  model  works: 

"Is  the  doctor  at  home?"  the  patient  asked  in  his  bronchial  whisper.  "No,"  the  doctor's  young  and 
pretty  wife  whispered  in  reply.  "Come  right  in." 

According  to  Raskin's  theory,  the  first  part  of  this  joke  evokes  a  standard  "doctor" 
script  (which  is  presumably  stored  in  the  listener's  semantic  network)  in  which  a 
patient  presents  himself  at  a  doctor's  residence  to  be  treated  for  an  illness  that  causes 
him  to  have  a  hoarse  voice,  and  is  told  that  the  doctor  is  not  there.  However,  the 
doctor's  wife's  invitation  for  the  patient  to  enter  the  house  anyway  does  not  fit  with 
the  "doctor"  script,  so  the  listener  must  backtrack  and  reevaluate  the  text.  The  infor- 
mation that  the  doctor's  wife  is  young  and  pretty  and  that  she  is  inviting  the  patient 
into  her  house  when  her  husband  is  away  activates  a  different  (i.e.,  "lover")  script. 
Both  the  "doctor"  script  and  the  "lover"  script  are  compatible  with  the  text,  and  these 


two  scripts  are  opposed  to  one  another  on  the  sex  versus  no-sex  basis.  Consequently, 
the  joke  fulfills  the  requirements  of  the  theory  and  is  evaluated  as  humorous.  Note 
that  Raskin's  theory  is  more  consistent  with  Koestler's  and  Apter's  ideas  of  "bisocia- 
tion"  and  "cognitive  synergy"  than  with  Shultz's  and  Suls'  incongruity-resolution 
theories  because,  in  Raskin's  theory,  both  scripts  are  activated  at  the  same  time,  rather 
than  one  replacing  the  other. 

Attardo  and  Raskin  (1991)  further  extended  and  revised  Raskin's  original  SSTH 
into  a  broader  linguistic  theory,  which  they  called  the  General  Theory  of  Verbal 
Humor  (GTVH),  which  addresses  other  areas  of  linguistics  such  as  pragmatics  and 
discourse  analysis,  in  addition  to  semantics.  This  revised  theory  is  a  model  of  joke 
representation,  which  posits  a  hierarchical  arrangement  of  six  Knowledge  Resources 
(KRs),  or  hypothetical  databases,  that  are  thought  to  be  involved  in  the  cognitive  rep- 
resentation and  analysis  of  humorous  texts.  The  six  KRs,  in  order  from  most  abstract 
to  most  concrete,  are:  Script  Oppositions  (SO),  Logical  Mechanisms  (LM),  Situations 
(SI),  Targets  (TA),  Narrative  Strategies  (NS),  and  Language  (LA).  Raskin's  original 
SSTH  theory  corresponds  to  the  SO  component,  and  is  thus  just  one  subset  of  this 
broader  theory.  LM  refers  to  the  "joke  techniques"  or  "pseudo-logic"  used  to  activate 
the  alternate  script  in  a  joke.  These  include  such  mechanisms  as  figure-ground  rever- 
sal, juxtaposition,  analogy,  parallelism,  and  faulty  reasoning.  SI  refers  to  the  people, 
objects,  activities,  and  so  on,  involved  in  the  particular  joke.  TA  (which  are  not  nec- 
essarily present  in  all  jokes)  refers  to  the  "butt"  or  victim  of  the  joke.  NS  refers  to  the 
"genre"  or  format  of  the  joke  (e.g.,  riddle  or  expository  text).  Finally,  LA  is  the  actual 
wording  of  the  joke. 

Attardo  (1997)  discussed  the  relationship  between  the  GTVH  and  traditional 
incongruity-resolution  theories  of  humor.  He  argued  for  a  "three-stage"  (setup- 
incongruity-resolution)  rather  than  a  "two-stage"  (incongruity-resolution)  model  of 
joke  comprehension.  Attardo  suggested  that  incongruity  has  to  do  with  the  SO  com- 
ponent, resolution  corresponds  to  the  LM  component,  and  setup  refers  to  the  overlap 
between  the  two  scripts.  Note,  however,  that  this  formulation  is  different  from  tradi- 
tional incongruity-resolution  theories,  since  it  views  the  resolution  as  coming  before 
the  incongruity,  that  is,  the  logical  mechanism  (which  Attardo  identifies  with  resolu- 
tion) activates  the  alternative  script,  which,  along  with  the  initial  script,  creates  the 
incongruity.  Thus,  the  GTVH  (like  the  SSTH  that  it  subsumes)  assumes  that  humor 
arises  from  the  concurrent  activation  of  two  incompatible  scripts,  and  is  therefore 
similar  to  the  views  of  Koestler  (1964),  Apter  (1982),  and  Wyer  (2004)  and  different 
from  the  incongruity-resolution  models  of  Shultz  (1976)  and  Suls  (1972),  which 
posit  that  humor  is  elicited  only  after  the  incongruity  has  been  eliminated  (i.e., 

Attardo,  Hempelmann,  and  Di  Maio  (2002)  developed  further  the  concept  of 
logical  mechanisms,  and  proposed  formulations  of  the  model  using  graph  theory  and 
set  theory.  Attardo  (1998)  extended  the  GTVH  to  allow  for  the  analysis  of  humorous 
texts  that  are  longer  than  jokes.  To  do  this,  he  introduced  a  variety  of  additional  con- 
cepts such  as  jab  and  punch  lines,  macro-  and  micro-narratives,  levels  of  narratives, 
strands  of  lines,  stacks  of  strands,  and  intertextual  jokes.  (An  explanation  of  these 


concepts  is  beyond  the  scope  of  the  present  discussion.)  Attardo  also  demonstrated 
how  this  more  complex  model  could  be  applied  by  using  it  to  analyze  a  segment  of  a 
television  sitcom.  Thus,  an  attempt  has  been  made  to  extend  the  theory  so  that  it  can 
account  for  spontaneous  conversational  humor  in  addition  to  canned  jokes. 

Although  this  brief  overview  certainly  does  not  do  justice  to  linguistic  theories  of 
humor,  it  should  give  readers  from  psychology  some  sense  of  the  kinds  of  theories 
that  have  been  developed  by  linguists,  which  could  potentially  be  used  as  a  source  of 
testable  hypotheses  for  psychological  research.  For  example,  psychologist  Willibald 
Ruch  teamed  up  with  Attardo  and  Raskin  (Ruch,  Attardo,  and  Raskin,  1993)  to 
conduct  an  empirical  study  designed  to  test  some  aspects  of  the  GTVH.  In  particu- 
lar, they  evaluated  the  hypothesis  that  subjects'  perceptions  of  similarities  between 
pairs  of  jokes  will  decrease  in  a  linear  fashion  as  the  jokes  differ  from  each  other  at 
successively  higher  levels  of  the  KR  hierarchy.  Research  participants  were  presented 
with  pairs  of  jokes  differing  from  one  another  at  various  levels  of  the  hierarchy.  For 
example,  two  jokes  might  be  identical  in  every  way  except  that  they  involved  different 
script  oppositions,  or  different  logical  mechanisms.  The  participants  were  instructed 
to  rate  how  similar  the  jokes  were  in  each  pair.  In  general,  the  results  conformed  to 
predictions,  with  greater  similarities  being  found  between  jokes  that  differed  at  lower 
levels  of  the  hierarchy.  However,  there  were  some  inconsistencies  in  the  exact  order- 
ing of  the  KRs,  particularly  in  the  case  of  LM,  suggesting  that  some  modification  of 
this  aspect  of  the  theory  may  be  required. 

Another  empirical  investigation  making  use  of  the  GTVH  was  reported  by  Italian 
psychologist  Giovannantonio  Forabosco  (1994),  who  conducted  two  experiments 
examining  the  effects  of  seriality  on  joke  appreciation.  In  particular,  he  was  interested 
in  determining  whether,  when  presented  with  a  series  of  jokes,  people  find  particular 
jokes  to  be  less  funny  if  they  are  similar  to  ones  that  they  have  already  seen.  Using 
the  GTVH  framework,  the  degree  of  similarity  between  jokes  was  manipulated  by 
varying  the  number  of  knowledge  resources  that  they  shared.  As  predicted,  the  more 
similar  a  group  of  jokes  were,  the  more  they  exhibited  a  seriality  effect,  such  that  those 
presented  later  in  the  series  were  rated  as  being  less  fanny  than  those  presented  earlier. 
These  investigations  provide  examples  of  how  psychological  research  methods  might 
be  used  to  test  linguistic  theories  of  humor,  as  well  as  how  linguistic  theories  might 
be  used  to  inform  psychological  research. 


Semantic  Distance 

Cognitive  psychologists  have  developed  a  number  of  experimental  techniques  for 
investigating  hypotheses  derived  from  schema  theories.  An  early  approach  made  use 
of  the  idea  of  semantic  distances  between  words  or  concepts  based  on  semantic 
differential  ratings.  This  methodology  was  pioneered  by  Charles  Osgood  and  his 


colleagues  as  a  means  of  exploring  the  way  meaning  is  represented  in  the  mind 
(Osgood,  Suci,  and  Tannenbaum,  1957;  Snider  and  Osgood,  1969).  It  involved  having 
a  large  number  of  research  participants  rate  particular  words  or  concepts  on  a  series 
of  rating  scales,  each  scale  representing  a  dimension  between  a  pair  of  adjectives  with 
opposite  meanings  (e.g.,  hot-cold,  fast-slow,  likable-unlikable).  These  ratings  were 
then  factor  analyzed  to  identify  a  smaller  number  of  basic  dimensions  (factors)  that 
capture  most  of  the  variance  in  the  ratings. 

Using  ratings  of  a  large  number  of  concepts  and  many  different  samples  of  par- 
ticipants, Osgood  and  his  colleagues  repeatedly  found  three  basic  orthogonal  factors, 
which  he  labeled  Activity  (active-passive),  Evaluative  (good-bad),  and  Potency 
(strong- weak).  These  three  factors  appear  to  be  basic  dimensions  by  which  people 
mentally  organize  meanings  that  they  attach  to  a  wide  range  of  concepts.  The  factors 
can  be  conceptualized  as  dimensions  of  a  hypothetical  three-dimensional  cognitive 
"space"  in  which  people  store  words  and  concepts  in  their  minds.  The  factor  load- 
ings of  a  particular  word  or  concept  can  be  used  to  identify  where  the  concept  is  stored 
in  this  space.  Concepts  that  are  similar  in  meaning  are  stored  closely  together  in  this 
hypothetical  semantic  space,  since  they  have  similar  loadings  on  the  three  factors, 
whereas  those  that  are  quite  different  in  meaning  have  different  loadings  and  are 
stored  at  more  distant  locations.  Thus,  semantic  distances  between  pairs  of  words  or 
concepts  can  be  quantified  by  means  of  the  difference  in  their  loadings  on  the  seman- 
tic differential  factors.  This  technique  provided  cognitive  researchers  a  method  for 
investigating  the  way  knowledge  or  meanings  of  concepts  are  organized  in  people's 

This  method  was  applied  to  the  study  of  humor  by  Michael  Godkewitsch  (1974), 
at  the  University  of  Toronto,  using  the  semantic  distances  between  pairs  of  words  as 
a  method  of  quantifying  incongruity.  Participants  were  presented  with  a  number  of 
adjective-noun  pairs  and  asked  to  rate  them  for  funniness  and  wittiness.  The  degree 
of  smiling  and  laughter  of  participants  was  also  observed.  The  semantic  distance 
between  the  words  in  each  pair  was  computed  on  the  basis  of  their  loadings  on  the 
semantic  differential  factors.  As  predicted  by  incongruity  theory,  adjective-noun  pairs 
that  were  more  discrepant  from  one  another  in  semantic  space  were  judged  to  be 
funnier  and  evoked  more  smiles.  For  example,  the  adjective-noun  pair  "happy  child," 
in  which  both  words  load  similarly  on  the  semantic  differential  factors,  was  not  seen 
as  very  funny.  In  contrast,  "wise  egg,"  with  an  intermediate  distance,  was  funnier,  and 
"hot  poet,"  with  a  high  semantic  distance,  was  even  funnier.  Although,  admittedly,  the 
humor  evoked  by  these  word  pairs  was  not  very  great,  it  was  systematically  related  to 
the  semantic  distance  between  the  two  words  in  each  pair,  providing  support  for 
incongruity  theories  of  humor. 

Tim  Hillson  and  I  also  employed  a  semantic  distance  procedure  to  model  the 
concept  of  resolution  as  well  as  incongruity  in  such  simple  verbal  stimuli  (Hillson  and 
Martin,  1994).  We  hypothesized  that  word  pairs  that  are  quite  distant  on  some  dimen- 
sions of  semantic  space  (incongruity)  but  are  also  quite  close  on  other  dimensions 
(resolution  of  incongruity)  might  be  funnier  than  those  that  are  either  distant  or  close 
on  all  dimensions.  We  employed  a  methodology,  called  the  domain-interaction 


approach,  which  had  previously  been  used  in  the  study  of  metaphors  by  other 
researchers  (e.g.,  Trick  and  Katz,  1986).  As  humor  stimuli,  we  used  simple  metaphor- 
like  statements  combining  two  concepts  in  the  form  "A  is  the  B  of  A's  domain"  (e.g., 
"George  Bush  is  the  buzzard  of  world  leaders").  The  domains  used  were  actors,  world 
leaders,  birds,  makes  of  cars,  foods,  and  magazines,  and  within  each  domain  we  used 
four  nouns  (e.g.,  Sylvester  Stallone  and  Woody  Allen  were  two  of  the  actors). 

Semantic  differential  ratings  provided  by  a  group  of  subjects  on  these  nouns  and 
domain  names  were  factor  analyzed,  yielding  four  factors.  We  identified  two  of  the 
factors  as  domain-distinguishing  (i.e.,  different  nouns  within  a  given  domain  were 
found  to  have  very  similar  loadings  on  these  two  factors,  while  nouns  from  different 
domains  had  more  distant  loadings).  The  other  two  factors  were  identified  as  domain- 
insensitive  (i.e.,  different  nouns  within  the  same  domain  could  have  quite  different 
loadings  on  these  two  factors).  On  the  basis  of  these  factor  loadings,  two  types  of 
semantic  distance  between  the  nouns  were  computed:  a  wi thin-domain  distance  (using 
the  domain-insensitive  factor  loadings),  and  a  between-domain  distance  (using  the 
domain-distinguishing  factor  loadings).  We  considered  between-domain  distance  to 
be  a  way  of  operationally  defining  incongruity  (greater  distance  =  greater  incongruity), 
and  within-domain  distance  to  be  a  way  of  operationalizing  resolution  (less  distance 
=  greater  resolution). 

We  then  created  metaphor-like  sentences  using  pairs  of  nouns  from  different 
domains  and  asked  a  second  group  of  participants  to  rate  them  for  funniness.  As  pre- 
dicted (and  consistent  with  the  findings  of  Godkewitsch,  1974),  the  between-domain 
distance  (incongruity)  of  the  noun  pairs  in  each  sentence  showed  a  significant  posi- 
tive correlation  with  the  funniness  ratings  of  the  jokes.  That  is,  noun  pairs  with  greater 
between-domain  distance  were  rated  as  more  funny.  Also  as  predicted,  within-domain 
distance  (resolution)  showed  no  simple  correlation  with  funniness,  but  did  produce  a 
significant  interaction  with  between-domain  distance  in  predicting  funniness  ratings. 
In  particular,  sentences  that  were  rated  as  most  funny  were  those  that  showed  both 
high  between-domain  distance  (incongruity)  and  low  within-domain  distance  (reso- 
lution). To  illustrate,  a  sentence  that  received  a  relatively  high  mean  humor  rating  was 
"Woody  Allen  is  the  quiche  of  actors."  The  between-domain  semantic  distance 
between  Woody  Allen  and  quiche  was  large  (actors  are  quite  different  from  foods  on 
some  dimensions),  but  the  within-domain  distance  was  small  (Woody  Allen  and 
quiche  are  quite  similar  in  some  ways  within  their  respective  domains).  Thus,  there 
is  incongruity  but  also  some  sort  of  resolution  to  the  incongruity  (i.e.,  the  incongruity 
"makes  sense"  in  some  way). 

The  semantic  distance  approach  did  seem  to  capture  some  relevant  dimensions 
of  humor,  as  it  was  able  to  systematically  predict  funniness  ratings  of  simple  verbal 
material.  It  could  still  be  a  useful  method  for  exploring  various  additional  parameters 
that  may  be  relevant  to  some  types  of  humor.  However,  this  technique  has  several 
limitations.  It  provides  only  a  static  picture  of  the  organization  of  semantic  meaning, 
and  is  therefore  not  useful  for  examining  the  processes  whereby  cognitive  structures 
(schemas)  are  activated  over  time  in  processing  humorous  information.  It  also  assumes 


that  cognitive  organization  is  the  same  in  all  people,  and,  because  mean  ratings 
are  averaged  across  large  numbers  of  participants,  it  is  not  amenable  to  studying  in- 
dividual differences  in  humor  comprehension.  In  addition,  it  allows  only  for  the  study 
of  simple  "pseudo-jokes"  made  up  of  word  pairs,  rather  than  more  complex  real  jokes 
and  other  natural  forms  of  humorous  material. 

Semantic  Priming  Techniques 

More  recently,  cognitive  psychologists  have  developed  a  number  of  more  sophisti- 
cated experimental  techniques  for  studying  schema  activation  in  real  time  with  more 
naturalistic  stimuli.  An  example  of  such  techniques  is  the  use  of  lexical  decision  tasks 
to  determine  whether  or  not  a  particular  schema  has  been  activated  (primed)  as  a  result 
of  exposure  to  some  previous  information.  In  these  tasks,  research  participants  are 
presented  with  a  string  of  letters  on  a  computer  screen  and  are  asked  to  indicate  as 
quickly  as  possible  whether  the  letter  string  is  a  real  word  or  a  nonword  (i.e.,  a  random 
string  of  letters)  by  pressing  one  of  two  keys  associated  with  each  of  these  options. 
The  reaction  time  for  making  this  response  is  measured  in  milliseconds. 

Studies  have  shown  that,  on  those  trials  in  which  the  target  letters  form  a  word, 
if  the  word  on  the  screen  is  semantically  related  to  a  schema  that  has  been  previously 
activated  (or  "primed"),  participants  will  respond  faster  than  if  it  is  not  related  to  an 
activated  schema,  presumably  because  the  information  is  more  readily  accessible  in 
their  minds.  For  example,  if  participants  have  been  thinking  about  cats  (and  therefore 
the  cat  schema  has  been  activated)  they  will  respond  more  quickly  to  the  word  whiskers 
(which  is  semantically  related  to  the  cat  schema)  than  they  would  if  they  had  been 
thinking  about  automobiles  and  an  automobile  schema  was  therefore  primed.  Con- 
sequently, this  methodology  can  be  used  by  researchers  to  determine  whether  or  not 
a  particular  schema  has  been  activated  in  an  individual  at  a  given  point  in  time.  For 
example,  this  sort  of  lexical  decision  task  has  been  used  by  psycholinguists  to  deter- 
mine the  way  various  scripts  become  activated  while  people  are  reading  narrative  texts 
(e.g.,  Sharkey  and  Mitchell,  1985). 

Recently,  psychologists  have  begun  to  make  use  of  techniques  such  as  the  Lexical 
Decision  Semantic  Priming  Task  in  the  study  of  humor  comprehension.  For  example, 
Jyotsna  Vaid  and  her  colleagues  (2003)  at  Texas  A&M  University  used  this  technique 
to  study  schema  activation  during  the  reading  of  jokes.  Based  on  incongruity  theory, 
they  hypothesized  that  an  initial  schema  (SI)  is  activated  during  the  joke  setup,  and 
a  second,  surprising  or  incongruous,  schema  (S2)  is  activated  later  in  the  joke.  For 
example,  in  the  joke  about  the  patient  and  the  doctor's  wife  discussed  previously,  SI 
would  be  the  "doctor"  script  and  S2  would  be  the  "lover"  script.  These  researchers 
were  interested  in  determining  whether  S2  becomes  activated  relatively  early  while 
reading  the  setup  or  whether  it  is  not  activated  until  the  punch  line.  They  also  wished 
to  determine  whether  S2  replaces  SI,  so  that  only  S2  remains  active  by  the  end  of 
the  joke  (the  selective  attention  view),  or  whether  both  SI  and  S2  remain  activated 
concurrently  right  up  to  the  end  of  the  joke  (the  concurrent  activation  view).  This 


question  is  relevant  to  the  competing  predictions  made  by  incongruity-resolution 
theories,  such  as  those  of  Suls  (1972)  and  Shultz  (1976),  versus  concurrent  activation 
theories  such  as  those  of  Attardo  and  Raskin  (1991)  and  Wyer  and  Collins  (1992). 

Vaid  and  her  colleagues  presented  participants  with  a  series  of  jokes  printed  on  a 
computer  screen.  Each  joke  was  divided  into  three  segments,  with  the  setup  being 
divided  into  two  parts  to  form  the  first  two  segments,  and  the  punch  line  forming  the 
third  segment.  After  each  segment,  the  subjects  were  presented  with  a  lexical  deci- 
sion probe  involving  words  that  were  semantically  related  to  either  the  initial  schema 
(SI)  or  the  second  (incongruous)  schema  (S2)  (the  schemas  had  been  identified  in 
pretesting  of  the  jokes  with  a  different  group  of  subjects).  If,  after  a  particular  joke 
segment,  reaction  times  for  making  a  particular  word-nonword  discrimination  were 
significantly  shorter  than  those  found  in  a  baseline  test,  this  would  indicate  that  the 
schema  associated  with  the  particular  word  was  activated  by  that  point  in  processing 
the  joke. 

The  results  revealed  that  the  initial  schemas  (SI)  were  activated  during  the  pre- 
sentation of  the  first  two  segments  of  the  jokes  (i.e.,  throughout  the  setup),  whereas 
the  incongruous  second  schemas  (S2)  became  activated  during  the  second  segment 
(i.e.,  the  second  half  of  the  setup).  Unexpectedly,  however,  neither  of  the  schemas  was 
found  to  be  activated  at  the  final  time  point  (immediately  after  the  punch  line).  These 
results  were  difficult  to  explain.  On  the  one  hand,  they  seemed  to  show  some  support 
for  the  concurrent  activation  view,  since  S2  was  not  more  strongly  activated  than  SI 
by  the  end  of  the  joke.  On  the  other  hand,  though,  the  lack  of  activation  of  either 
schema  by  that  point  was  inconsistent  with  either  hypothesis.  This  finding  needs  to 
be  replicated  in  further  research  before  firm  conclusions  can  be  drawn.  Interestingly, 
the  finding  that  S2  was  primed  well  before  the  punch  line  suggests  that  numerous 
potential  schemas  may  be  activated  even  before  the  incongruity  is  encountered.  This 
finding  seems  to  provide  additional  evidence,  consistent  with  the  findings  of  Kenny 
(1955)  and  Pollio  and  Mers  (1974),  discussed  in  Chapter  3,  that  the  recipients  of  a 
joke  have  already  anticipated  the  "true"  meaning  of  the  joke  well  before  they  hear  the 
punch  line,  rather  than  it  being  unexpected  (as  suggested  by  incongruity-resolution 

In  a  second  experiment,  Vaid  and  her  colleagues  (2003)  used  the  same  method- 
ology to  examine  the  activation  of  the  two  schemas  more  than  four  seconds  after  a 
joke  was  presented,  giving  the  participants  ample  time  to  process  the  joke  meaning. 
Here,  the  results  showed  priming  for  the  second  schema  (S2)  but  not  for  the  initial 
schema  (SI).  These  findings  were  interpreted  as  supporting  the  selective  attention 
view,  since  only  the  second  joke  meaning  appears  to  be  primed  after  the  joke  is  fully 
processed.  Because  they  did  not  include  lexical  decision  probes  at  times  closer  to  the 
ending  of  the  joke,  however,  these  results  are  not  conclusive.  Further  research  is 
needed  to  replicate  these  studies  and  to  investigate  the  priming  of  schemas  at  multi- 
ple time  points  during  and  after  the  presentation  of  jokes. 

Other  methods  that  have  been  developed  for  psycholinguistic  research  on  schema 
activation  could  also  be  adapted  to  address  research  questions  relating  to  humor.  An 
example  is  the  Cross-Modal  Lexical  Priming  Task,  which  was  used  by  Stewart  and 


Heredia  (2002)  to  study  schema  activation  during  metaphor  comprehension.  In  this 
technique,  auditory  information  (e.g.,  a  joke  or  funny  narrative)  is  presented  to 
research  participants  via  headphones,  and  probe  words  related  to  various  schemas  are 
presented  visually  on  a  computer  screen  at  precise  moments  during  the  auditory  pre- 
sentation. The  participants  are  instructed  to  read  these  probe  words  aloud  as  quickly 
as  possible,  and  the  reaction  times  for  reading  the  words  are  recorded.  Since  words 
that  are  semantically  related  to  currently  activated  schemas  are  spoken  more  quickly 
than  those  unrelated  to  activated  schemas,  this  is  another  way  of  testing  whether  or 
not  particular  schemas  have  been  primed. 

Another  method  is  the  Word  Fragment  Completion  Test  (e.g.,  Giora  and  Fein, 
1999)  in  which  participants  are  instructed  to  complete  a  fragmented  (partially  spelled 
out)  word  with  the  first  word  they  can  think  of.  Words  that  are  semantically  more 
closely  related  to  currently  primed  schemas  can  be  completed  more  quickly.  Thus, 
these  methods  can  be  used  to  determine  whether  particular  schemas  have  been  acti- 
vated at  particular  points  during  the  processing  of  jokes  and  other  humorous  texts. 

As  this  brief  overview  shows,  these  sorts  of  techniques  hold  a  great  deal  of  promise 
for  cognitive  research  on  humor,  enabling  researchers  to  test  specific  hypotheses  about 
the  time  course  of  schema  activation  during  the  processing  of  humorous  texts.  More 
studies  are  needed  to  replicate  the  initial  findings  of  Vaid  et  al.  (2003),  to  clarify  the 
patterns  that  have  been  observed,  and  to  broaden  the  scope  of  inquiry.  These  authors 
listed  a  number  of  unanswered  research  questions,  including  the  precise  timing  and 
duration  of  activation  of  the  schemas,  the  role  of  individual  differences  in  joke  pro- 
cessing, the  effects  of  manipulating  subjects'  expectations  about  whether  or  not  they 
will  be  encountering  humorous  materials,  the  degree  to  which  meaning  activation  in 
joke  processing  is  subject  to  strategic  versus  automatic  control,  and  the  processes 
involved  in  different  types  of  humorous  texts  besides  jokes,  such  as  humor  occurring 
spontaneously  in  conversation  (e.g.,  irony,  witticisms).  Besides  greatly  enriching  our 
understanding  of  the  cognitive  processes  involved  in  humor,  the  results  of  these  sorts 
of  investigations  should  help  to  address  long-standing  debates  among  theorists,  such 
as  the  debate  about  incongruity  versus  incongruity-resolution  as  the  basis  of  humor. 


Much  of  the  past  theoretical  and  empirical  work  on  cognitive  aspects  of  humor  has 
focused  particularly  on  jokes.  For  example,  Attardo  and  Raskin's  GTVH  was  designed 
primarily  to  explain  joke  comprehension.  However,  as  noted  in  Chapter  1,  most  of 
the  humor  that  we  encounter  in  everyday  life  is  not  in  the  form  of  "canned"  jokes 
(R.  A.  Martin  and  Kuiper,  1999;  Provine,  2000).  Much  everyday  humor  arises  from 
spontaneous  intentional  and  unintentional  verbal  and  nonverbal  behaviors  of  people 
interacting  with  one  another,  such  as  witty  retorts,  wordplay,  banter,  teasing,  irony, 
sarcasm,  slips  of  the  tongue,  practical  jokes,  and  pratfalls  (Long  and  Graesser,  1988; 
Norrick,  1993,  2003). 


Since  jokes  are  context-free  and  self-contained,  and  can  be  told  in  many  conver- 
sational contexts,  they  are  relatively  easy  to  analyze  and  they  lend  themselves  well  to 
experimental  research.  Conversational  humor,  however,  depends  more  on  the  con- 
stantly changing  social  context  and  therefore  poses  greater  challenges  for  theorists 
and  researchers.  Nonetheless,  some  theoretical  and  empirical  work  has  been  done  in 
this  area  in  recent  years  by  cognitive  psychologists  (particularly  psycholinguists) 
and  linguists  (primarily  those  working  in  the  areas  of  pragmatics  and  discourse 
analysis).  For  example,  Wyer  and  Collins  (Wyer,  2004,  1992)  showed  how  their  com- 
prehension-elaboration theory  of  humor  elicitation  can  be  used  to  account  for 
many  types  of  witticisms  as  well  as  unintentional  humor  and  even  nonverbal  humor. 
Norrick  (1986)  also  applied  his  schema  conflict  theory  to  a  variety  of  conversational 
witticisms  in  addition  to  jokes,  including  witty  retorts,  quips,  and  one-liners.  Lippman 
and  Dunn  (2000)  also  conducted  a  series  of  experiments  on  appreciation  and  memory 
for  puns. 

One  type  of  conversational  humor  that  has  received  particular  theoretical  and 
empirical  attention  in  recent  years  is  irony.  Irony  is  a  figure  of  speech  that  commu- 
nicates the  opposite  of  what  is  said.  For  example,  someone  who  says  "What  a  beau- 
tiful day!"  during  a  bleak  and  miserable  day  is  actually  communicating  "What  an  awful 
day."  Although  irony  is  not  always  funny,  it  can  be  a  source  of  humor.  Irony  is  also 
closely  related  to  sarcasm,  which  depends  for  its  effect  on  "bitter,  caustic,  and  other 
ironic  language  that  is  usually  directed  against  an  individual"  (Gibbs,  1986,  p.  3).  For 
example,  if  someone  says  "You're  a  fine  friend"  to  someone  who  has  been  unkind,  this 
is  an  ironic  statement  that  is  also  sarcastic. 

Psycholinguist  Rachel  Giora  and  her  colleagues  at  Tel  Aviv  University  have  pro- 
posed a  graded  salience  theory  of  humor  that  is  based  on  pragmatics  and  focuses  pri- 
marily on  irony.  Giora  (1985,  1995)  suggested  that  there  are  implicit  rules  that  people 
follow  while  engaging  in  conversation  ("discourse"):  (1)  all  messages  should  be  rele- 
vant to  the  topic  of  conversation  (the  relevance  requirement);  (2)  successive  messages 
should  be  gradually  more  informative,  and  not  less  informative,  than  preceding  ones 
(the  graded  informativeness  requirement);  and  (3)  any  deviation  from  the  first  two 
rules  should  be  "marked"  with  an  explicit  semantic  connector  such  as  "by  the  way" 
or  "after  all."  When  we  are  attempting  to  understand  the  meaning  of  something 
another  person  says  during  a  conversation,  we  are  initially  guided  by  the  "graded 
salience  principle,"  which  dictates  that  salient  meanings  (i.e.,  the  more  conventional, 
common,  familiar,  or  prototypical  meanings)  are  always  activated  first.  If  the  salient 
meaning  does  not  match  the  context  (doesn't  make  sense),  then  less  salient  meanings 
are  activated.  Subsequently,  there  is  a  contextual  integration  phase,  in  which  any 
meanings  that  have  been  activated  are  either  retained,  or  suppressed  as  irrelevant  or 
disruptive,  or  permitted  to  fade. 

An  ironic  statement  in  a  conversation,  according  to  Giora  (1995,  1998),  conforms 
to  the  relevance  requirement,  since  it  introduces  information  about  the  current  topic 
of  conversation,  but  it  violates  the  graded  informativeness  requirement,  since  it  intro- 
duces an  improbable  message  whose  salient  meaning  is  either  too  informative  or  not 
informative  enough.  To  understand  the  ironic  statement,  the  listener  first  activates  its 


salient  (literal)  meaning,  but,  since  this  does  not  make  sense  in  the  context,  must  then 
activate  an  "unmarked"  interpretation  (the  "implicature"),  and  both  of  these  mean- 
ings remain  activated  in  order  for  them  to  be  compared.  The  incongruity  between 
the  two  activated  meanings  causes  the  irony  to  be  humorous.  In  addition  to  explain- 
ing irony,  Giora  (1991)  also  applied  her  graded  salience  theory  to  the  understanding 
of  jokes.  Although  this  theory  is  similar  in  many  ways  to  Raskin's  (1985)  script-based 
theory,  Giora 's  theory  takes  the  social  context  of  humor  into  account,  and  is  there- 
fore more  applicable  to  non-joke-related  humor.  Indeed,  Norrick  (2003)  has  applied 
Giora's  theory  to  various  types  of  conversational  witticisms,  including  puns  and 
amusing  anecdotes. 

Some  implications  of  Giora's  theory  are  that  comprehension  of  ironic  statements 
should  take  longer  than  nonironic  statements  (since  it  involves  activating  two  mean- 
ings), and  that  both  meanings  should  remain  activated  after  the  "true"  meaning  of  the 
ironic  statement  has  been  understood.  These  predictions  are  in  contrast  to  some  other 
theories  (e.g.,  H.  H.  Clark  and  Gerrig,  1984;  Gibbs,  1994;  Sperber,  1984)  that  suggest 
that,  given  enough  contextual  information,  irony  (and  other  nonliteral  language)  is 
processed  in  the  same  way  as  literal  language  (known  as  the  Processing  Equivalence 
Hypothesis).  According  to  these  views,  irony  should  take  no  longer  to  understand 
than  literal  language,  and  only  the  ironic  meaning  will  be  activated. 

Although  some  research  findings  seem  to  provide  support  for  the  Processing 
Equivalence  Hypothesis  (e.g.  Gibbs,  1986),  Giora  (1995)  reinterpreted  these  findings 
in  light  of  her  own  theory.  In  addition,  Giora  and  her  colleagues  have  conducted 
several  experiments  that  provide  evidence  in  support  of  her  graded  salience  theory 
and  against  the  Processing  Equivalence  Hypothesis.  For  example,  Giora,  Fein,  and 
Schwartz  (1998)  showed  that  reading  a  statement  in  an  ironically  biased  context  (i.e., 
at  the  end  of  a  story  in  which  the  statement  is  clearly  meant  to  be  taken  ironically) 
takes  longer  than  reading  the  same  utterance  in  a  literally  biased  context  (where  the 
preceding  story  supports  a  literal  interpretation),  indicating  that  more  processing  is 
taking  place  in  the  case  of  irony  comprehension.  In  another  experiment,  using  the 
Lexical  Decision  Semantic  Priming  Technique  described  earlier,  they  showed  that 
both  the  ironic  and  literal  meanings  of  sentences  were  activated  when  they  were  pre- 
sented in  an  ironically  biased  context,  but  only  the  literal  meanings  were  activated  in 
a  literally  biased  context.  Giora  and  Fein  (1999)  also  found  similar  results  using  the 
Word  Fragment  Completion  Procedure  to  test  meaning  activation. 

More  recent  research  suggests  that  the  conflict  between  the  Processing  Equiva- 
lence and  Graded  Salience  Hypotheses  may  be  resolved  by  taking  the  social  context 
into  account.  Albert  Katz,  a  cognitive  psychologist  at  the  University  of  Western 
Ontario,  and  his  colleagues  summarized  a  body  of  research  investigating  the  way  indi- 
viduals process  sarcastic  statements  when  they  have  been  provided  with  information 
about  the  interpersonal  context,  such  as  the  degree  of  relatedness  and  shared  knowl- 
edge of  the  participants  in  a  conversation,  or  the  gender  and  occupation  of  the  speaker 
(A.  N.  Katz  et  al,  2004).  Taken  together,  these  studies  showed  that  the  speed  with 
which  people  recognize  statements  as  sarcasm  depends  on  their  prior  information 
about  the  context. 


For  example,  some  studies  found  that,  when  subjects  are  told  that  a  statement  was 
made  by  a  male,  they  take  no  longer  to  read  sarcastic  statements  than  literal  state- 
ments (supporting  the  Processing  Equivalence  Hypothesis),  whereas  when  the  state- 
ment is  made  by  a  female,  sarcastic  sentences  take  longer  to  read  than  literal  ones 
(supporting  the  Graded  Salience  Hypothesis).  These  findings  suggest  that,  since  males 
are  generally  perceived  as  being  more  likely  to  use  sarcasm  than  are  females,  the  sar- 
castic meaning  of  an  utterance  by  a  male  is  more  readily  available  during  the  com- 
prehension process.  In  contrast,  when  a  woman  makes  a  sarcastic  comment,  the  literal 
meaning  tends  to  be  activated  initially,  before  the  sarcastic  meaning  is  accessed,  result- 
ing in  lengthier  processing.  Similar  differences  in  processing  time  were  found  when 
participants  were  given  information  about  the  occupation  of  the  speaker.  Sarcastic 
statements  were  processed  very  quickly  when  the  speaker  was  described  as  being  either 
a  comedian  or  a  factory  worker,  but  they  required  longer  processing  time  when  the 
speaker  was  said  to  be  a  priest  or  teacher  (occupations  that  are  stereotypically  viewed 
as  less  likely  to  use  sarcasm). 

Katz  and  his  colleagues  (2004)  proposed  a  constraint-satisfaction  model  to 
account  for  these  sorts  of  findings.  According  to  this  theory,  different  sources  of 
information  about  the  social  context  (i.e.,  constraints)  provide  probabilistic  support 
for  different  possible  interpretations  of  an  utterance  (e.g.,  whether  it  is  literal 
or  sarcastic).  These  constraints  operate  in  parallel  while  a  sentence  is  being  processed. 
If  the  constraints  all  point  in  the  same  direction,  competition  between  alternative 
interpretations  is  resolved  rapidly,  whereas  settling  on  an  interpretation  takes  longer 
if  support  for  different  alternatives  is  nearly  equal.  Thus,  the  social  context  in  which 
ironic  or  sarcastic  statements  are  made  plays  an  important  role  in  determining 
how  efficiently  they  are  interpreted.  If  all  indicators  point  toward  a  humorous  inter- 
pretation right  from  the  start,  the  incongruity  of  humor  can  be  interpreted  very 

Other  recent  psycholinguistic  investigations  of  the  comprehension  of  nonliteral 
humorous  language  have  provided  further  evidence  of  the  importance  of  taking  the 
interpersonal  context  into  account.  For  example,  Penny  Pexman  and  Meghan 
Zvaigzne  (2004),  at  the  University  of  Calgary,  examined  the  effect  of  the  closeness  of 
a  relationship  on  participants'  comprehension  of  ironic  insults  and  compliments. 
Ironic  insults  are  positive  statements  that  are  intended  to  be  taken  as  criticisms  (e.g., 
saying  "You're  a  fine  friend"  when  someone  has  done  something  unkind),  whereas 
ironic  compliments  are  negative  statements  that  are  intended  to  be  taken  positively 
(e.g.,  saying  "Too  bad  you  can't  play  baseball"  when  someone  has  just  scored  a  home 
run).  Participants  were  presented  with  vignettes  describing  either  a  close  friend  or  a 
casual  acquaintance  making  a  positive  or  a  negative  statement  in  a  positive  or 
a  negative  social  context,  and  were  asked  to  rate  these  statements  on  a  number  of 

As  expected,  when  the  positivity  of  the  statement  was  incongruent  with  the  pos- 
itivity  of  the  context  (e.g.,  a  positive  statement  in  a  negative  context),  the  statements 
were  perceived  by  the  participants  to  be  ironic,  regardless  of  whether  the  statement 
took  place  between  close  friends  or  casual  acquaintances.  However,  the  closeness  of 


the  relationship  affected  the  perceived  funniness  of  these  ironic  statements:  irony 
occurring  between  close  friends,  as  compared  to  casual  acquaintances,  was  rated  as 
more  humorous,  especially  if  it  was  an  ironic  compliment.  Irony  between  close  friends 
(as  compared  to  acquaintances)  was  also  more  likely  to  be  perceived  as  friendly  teasing 
and  less  likely  to  be  viewed  as  having  either  a  positive  or  negative  impact  on  their 
relationship.  Interestingly,  ironic  compliments  were  rated  as  being  less  polite  than 
literal  compliments,  whereas  ironic  insults  were  rated  as  being  more  polite  than  literal 
insults.  The  authors  concluded  from  their  overall  findings  that  humor  in  the  form  of 
irony  plays  a  role  in  building  and  maintaining  close  relationships.  In  addition,  the 
presence  of  solidarity  and  closeness  in  a  relationship  acts  as  a  cue  for  interpreting  the 
intention  of  the  ironic  speaker,  facilitating  the  second-order  inferences  that  are  needed 
to  understand  such  nonliteral  remarks.  Thus,  social  factors  as  well  as  linguistic  factors 
are  important  for  understanding  irony. 

Overall,  then,  in  recent  years  there  has  been  some  debate  among  psycholinguists 
concerning  the  cognitive  processes  involved  in  the  comprehension  of  irony  and 
sarcasm,  and  this  has  stimulated  a  considerable  amount  of  interesting  research  (see 
Creusere,  1999,  for  a  review).  Moreover,  as  cognitive  psychologists  have  moved 
beyond  the  study  of  jokes  to  these  more  conversational  forms  of  humor,  their  research 
has  increasingly  taken  the  interpersonal  context  into  account,  examining  the  effects 
of  social  as  well  as  linguistic  factors  on  cognitive  processing  of  humor.  Similar  research 
efforts  will  hopefully  be  applied  to  investigate  other  types  of  conversational  humor 
besides  irony  and  sarcasm.  The  techniques  for  assessing  schema  activation  that  I  have 
discussed  are  potentially  useful  tools  for  further  creative  research  in  this  area. 


Thus  far,  I  have  examined  cognitive  processes  that  are  involved  in  humor  compre- 
hension. I  now  turn  to  a  discussion  of  the  possible  effects  of  humor  on  other  aspects 
of  cognition,  focusing  particularly  on  creativity  and  memory. 


Many  theorists  and  researchers  have  noted  a  close  relationship  between  humor  and 
creativity.  Koestler  (1964)  considered  humor,  along  with  scientific  discovery  and  artis- 
tic creation,  to  be  forms  of  creativity,  all  of  which  involved  the  process  of  bisociation 
(discussed  earlier).  Just  as  elements  like  incongruity,  surprise,  and  novelty  are  seen  by 
theorists  as  necessary  elements  of  humor,  these  are  also  seen  by  creativity  theorists  as 
defining  characteristics  of  creativity  (e.g.,  Besemer  and  Treffinger,  1981;  Mednick, 
1962).  Thus,  both  humor  and  creativity  involve  a  switch  of  perspective,  a  new  way  of 
looking  at  things.  Indeed,  many  creativity  researchers  consider  humor  to  be  essen- 
tially a  type  of  creativity.  Consequently,  some  measures  of  creative  ability  or  creative 
personality  that  they  have  developed  include  assessments  of  humor  among  their  items 
(e.g.,  G.  A.  Davis  and  Subkoviak,  1975;  Torrance,  1966). 


Several  studies  have  also  investigated  the  creativity  involved  in  subjects'  humor- 
ous productions  (e.g.,  Derks,  1987;  Derks  and  Hervas,  1988).  Murdock  and  Ganim 
(1993)  reviewed  the  theoretical  literature  on  humor  and  creativity,  and  concluded  that 
humor  can  be  considered  a  subset  of  creativity,  recommending  that  they  be  studied 
within  similar  conceptual  frameworks.  However,  O'Quin  and  Derks  (1997)  disagreed 
with  this  view.  On  the  basis  of  the  existing  research  evidence,  they  concluded  that, 
although  there  are  close  theoretical  links  between  the  two,  creativity  and  humor 
should  be  considered  two  separate  but  partially  overlapping  domains. 

A  large  number  of  studies  have  examined  the  relation  between  trait  measures  of 
sense  of  humor  and  measures  of  creative  abilities  and  traits,  indicating  a  moderate 
relationship  between  the  two  (see  O'Quin  and  Derks,  1997,  for  a  review).  Thus,  indi- 
viduals with  a  greater  sense  of  humor  also  tend  to  be  more  creative  in  other  areas. 
However,  this  correlational  research  does  not  provide  evidence  of  a  causal  influence. 
Indeed,  O'Quin  and  Derks  (1997)  pointed  out  that  the  two  may  be  related  due  to  the 
common  influence  of  a  third  variable,  such  as  intelligence.  Here  I  am  interested  par- 
ticularly in  the  potential  effects  of  humor  on  creativity.  Does  exposure  to  humor  cause 
people  to  be  more  creative  in  their  thinking?  There  are  at  least  two  possible  mecha- 
nisms by  which  humor  may  be  expected  to  affect  creativity.  First,  the  flexible  thought 
processes  and  activation  of  multiple  schemas  involved  in  the  processing  of  incon- 
gruities in  humor  may  facilitate  the  flexible  and  divergent  thinking  required  for  cre- 
ativity (Belanger,  Kirkpatrick,  and  Derks,  1998).  Second,  the  positive  emotion  (i.e., 
mirth)  associated  with  humor  may  reduce  tension  and  anxiety,  resulting  in  less  rigid- 
ity of  thinking  and  an  enhanced  ability  to  relate  and  integrate  divergent  material  (Isen, 
Daubman,  and  Nowicki,  1987). 

A  number  of  experiments  have  provided  considerable  evidence  that  exposure  to 
humor  produces  an  increase  in  people's  creative  potential.  Israeli  psychologist  Avner 
Ziv  (1976)  compared  scores  of  tenth  grade  students  on  two  tests  of  verbal  creativity 
after  they  had  either  listened  to  a  recording  of  a  popular  comedian  or  engaged  in  a 
nonhumorous  activity.  Compared  to  the  controls,  those  in  the  humor  condition 
obtained  significantly  higher  scores  on  measures  of  fluency,  flexibility,  and  original- 
ity, as  well  as  total  creativity. 

In  the  1980s,  psychologist  Alice  Isen,  at  the  University  of  Maryland,  and  her  col- 
leagues conducted  a  series  of  studies  demonstrating  facilitative  effects  of  positive 
emotion  on  creativity  (Isen  et  al.,  1987;  Isen,  Johnson,  Mertz,  and  Robinson,  1985). 
Creativity  was  assessed  by  a  variety  of  methods,  including  the  Remote  Associates  Test, 
unusual  word  associations,  and  problem-solving  tasks  requiring  creative  ingenuity. 
Although  Isen  and  her  colleagues  conceptualized  their  findings  in  terms  of  positive 
affect  in  general  rather  than  humor  in  particular,  in  most  of  these  studies  they  used 
exposure  to  comedy  films  as  one  method  of  inducing  positive  emotion.  The  studies 
generally  showed  that  exposure  to  comedy  resulted  in  more  creative  responses  as  com- 
pared to  emotionally  neutral  or  negative  control  conditions.  Since  these  findings  also 
occurred  with  nonhumorous  methods  of  inducing  positive  emotions,  it  appears  that 
the  creativity-enhancing  effects  of  humor  are  likely  due  to  effects  of  mirth  (i.e.,  the 
emotional  component  of  humor)  on  cognition  rather  than  to  a  more  cognitive  mech- 


anism  such  as  the  idea  that  activation  of  multiple  schemas  in  humor  produces 
increased  cognitive  flexibility.  Other  research  has  shown  that  positive  emotional  states 
(including  humor-related  mirth)  affect  a  variety  of  cognitive  processes  including 
memory,  judgment,  willingness  to  take  risks,  cognitive  organization,  and  decision 
making  (Isen,  1993,  2003;  Isen  and  Daubman,  1984). 

In  summary,  there  is  evidence  that  exposure  to  humor  can  enhance  creative  think- 
ing, and  that  this  effect  is  likely  mediated  by  the  positive  emotion  (i.e.,  mirth)  asso- 
ciated with  humor.  These  findings  may  have  practical  implications  for  applications  of 
humor  for  enhancing  creative  thinking  and  problem  solving  in  such  fields  as  educa- 
tion and  business  (which  will  be  discussed  in  Chapter  11). 


Does  humor  enhance  memory?  More  specifically,  is  humorous  material  remembered 
better  than  nonhumorous  material?  Educators  and  advertisers  have  long  believed  in 
the  beneficial  effects  on  memory  of  humorous  lectures  and  advertisements.  There  are 
several  reasons  why  humor  might  be  expected  to  enhance  memory  (Schmidt,  1994). 
First,  the  positive  emotion  associated  with  humor  may  have  positive  effects  on 
memory  in  a  manner  similar  to  the  demonstrated  effects  of  nonhumorous  emotional 
arousal.  Second,  humor  may  enhance  attention  to  stimuli  due  to  the  novelty  and  sur- 
prise involved  in  humorous  incongruity.  Third,  humorous  material  may  be  rehearsed 
more  than  nonhumorous  material,  resulting  in  increased  retention.  Finally,  humor 
may  affect  retrieval  strategies,  biasing  subjects  to  retrieve  humorous  material  before 
nonhumorous  material. 

Several  early  studies  investigated  memory-enhancing  effects  of  humor  in  the  con- 
texts of  education  (e.g.,  Kaplan  and  Pascoe,  1977;  Kintsch  and  Bates,  1977)  and  adver- 
tising (e.g.,  C.  P.  Duncan,  Nelson,  and  Frontzak,  1984;  Gelb  and  Zinkhan,  1986)  with 
mixed  results.  However,  most  of  these  did  not  provide  adequate  control  over  possi- 
ble confounding  factors  such  as  the  emotional  content  of  the  materials  to  be  remem- 
bered. More  recently,  Steven  Schmidt,  a  psychologist  at  Middle  Tennessee  State 
University,  has  conducted  a  series  of  well-designed  experiments  that  demonstrated 
enhanced  memory  effects  of  humor,  and  explored  a  number  of  competing  hypothe- 
ses regarding  the  mechanisms  involved  (Schmidt,  1994,  2002;  Schmidt  and  Williams, 

In  a  series  of  six  experiments,  Schmidt  (1994)  examined  the  effects  of  humor  on 
sentence  memory  by  presenting  participants  with  lists  of  humorous  and  nonhumor- 
ous sentences.  To  control  for  possible  nonhumor-related  differences  between  the  sen- 
tences, humorous  and  nonhumorous  versions  of  the  same  sentences  were  used. 
Pretesting  of  the  sentences  revealed  that  they  did  not  differ  on  ratings  of  bizarreness, 
difficulty,  meaningfulness,  or  familiarity,  but  did  differ  greatly  on  rated  funniness.  The 
studies  revealed  that  humorous  sentences  were  recalled  better  than  nonhumorous 
sentences  when  they  were  presented  in  lists  containing  both  types  of  sentences.  In 
fact,  enhanced  recall  of  the  humorous  sentences  was  found  at  the  expense  of  the 
nonhumorous  sentences  in  the  same  list.  In  other  words,  when  both  humorous  and 


nonhumorous  sentences  were  presented  in  the  same  list,  participants  performed  better 
in  recalling  the  humorous  sentences  but  worse  in  recalling  the  nonhumorous  sen- 
tences, relative  to  their  performance  when  either  type  of  sentence  was  presented  alone. 
However,  when  the  two  types  of  sentences  were  presented  in  separate  homogeneous 
lists,  there  was  no  difference  in  recall  for  the  two  types.  These  effects  were  found 
with  free  and  cued  recall,  in  incidental  and  intentional  learning,  and  on  a  variety  of 
measures  of  sentence  access.  As  to  the  possible  mechanisms  involved,  Schmidt  con- 
cluded that  the  findings  were  inconsistent  with  simple  arousal,  surprise,  and  retrieval 
explanations,  but  consistent  with  the  hypothesis  that  humorous  material  receives  both 
increased  attention  and  rehearsal  as  compared  to  nonhumorous  material. 

Schmidt  and  Williams  (2001)  examined  further  the  effects  of  humor  on  memory, 
using  cartoons  instead  of  humorous  sentences.  Participants  were  better  able  to  recall 
the  gist  of  original  cartoons  than  nonhumorous  or  "weird"  (but  not  funny)  versions 
of  the  same  cartoons.  However,  these  memory  differences  were  not  found  for  detailed 
cartoon  information  such  as  the  actual  wording  of  the  captions.  Schmidt  (2002)  repli- 
cated the  findings  with  cartoon  stimuli  and  also  took  heart  rate  measures  of  partici- 
pants to  examine  the  role  of  physiological  arousal  in  the  memory  effect  of  humor.  The 
heart  rate  results  did  not  show  evidence  for  an  enhanced  orienting  response  to  the 
humorous  materials  (contrary  to  the  prediction  of  Deckers  and  Hricik,  1984),  but  a 
greater  secondary  heart-rate  deceleration  to  the  humorous  cartoons  suggested  that 
different  encoding  processes  occurred  with  the  humorous  as  compared  to  the  non- 
humorous  stimuli.  Overall,  these  findings  suggest  that  humor  serves  as  a  sort  of 
mnemonic  technique  or  memory  aid,  causing  greater  elaboration  of  information  and 
therefore  enhancing  its  transfer  and  storage  in  long-term  memory. 

If  humor  aids  memory,  why  is  it  often  so  difficult  to  remember  a  joke?  Schmidt 
and  Williams  (2001)  commented  that  their  findings  help  to  explain  this  phenomenon, 
since  humor  enhances  memory  for  the  gist  of  the  material,  but  not  for  details  such  as 
the  exact  wording.  The  funniness  of  a  joke  may  help  us  to  remember  what  it  was 
generally  about,  but  may  not  help  us  to  remember  the  exact  wording  of  the  punch 
line.  More  effortful  repetition  and  elaboration  seems  to  be  needed  to  memorize  a  joke 
if  one  wishes  to  be  able  to  recall  it  later.  The  authors  also  suggest  that  past  research 
showing  mnemonic  benefits  of  bizarre  imagery  (the  "bizarreness  effect")  may  have 
been  due  to  humorousness  rather  than  bizarreness,  since  the  weird  cartoons  without 
humor  in  their  study  did  not  have  an  effect  on  memory. 

Peter  Derks  and  his  colleagues,  at  the  College  of  William  and  Mary,  used  exper- 
imental procedures  similar  to  those  of  Schmidt  (1994)  to  examine  potential  memory 
effects  of  "tendentious"  (i.e.,  sexual  and  aggressive)  humor  compared  to  nontenden- 
tious  humor  (Derks,  Gardner,  and  Agarwal,  1998).  They  partially  replicated  Schmidt's 
findings  of  memory-enhancing  effects  of  humorous  material,  and  also  found  a  strong 
effect  for  tendentiousness,  indicating  that  emotionally  arousing  elements  such  as  sex 
and  aggression  further  enhance  these  memory  effects.  Lippman  and  Dunn  (2000)  also 
found  some  evidence  for  memory-enhancing  effects  of  humor  using  puns. 

In  summary,  these  studies  provide  quite  convincing  evidence  that  humorous 
information  is  recalled  better  than  nonhumorous  information  when  both  are  pre- 


sented  in  the  same  context.  If  only  humorous  material  is  presented,  there  is  no  ap- 
parent benefit  for  memory.  However,  the  recall  of  humorous  material  appears  to  be 
at  the  expense  of  memory  for  nonhumorous  information  presented  at  the  same  time. 
These  findings  have  potential  implications  for  education  and  advertising.  For  example, 
humor  may  enhance  memory  for  the  humorous  material  but  diminish  memory  for 
other  information  contained  in  a  lecture  or  advertisement.  Humor  therefore  should 
be  integrated  with  the  course  content  or  product.  In  addition,  constant  use  of  humor 
will  have  little  effect  on  retention.  Instead,  humor  should  be  used  to  illustrate  impor- 
tant concepts  and  not  background  or  peripheral  material. 


Is  it  possible  to  program  a  computer  to  generate  and/or  understand  humor?  Although 
researchers  in  the  field  of  artificial  intelligence  (AI)  have,  for  the  most  part,  ignored 
humor,  it  can  be  argued  that  any  attempt  to  develop  a  truly  intelligent  computer 
system  will  ultimately  need  to  address  the  problem  of  humor.  Graeme  Ritchie,  a  lin- 
guist and  AI  researcher  at  the  University  of  Edinburgh,  along  with  his  students  and 
colleagues,  is  currently  the  most  active  scholar  in  the  field  of  computational  humor 
(Binsted  and  Ritchie,  1997,  2001;  Ritchie,  2001,  2004).  Ritchie  (2001)  suggested  that 
AI  investigations  of  humor  can  not  only  help  to  clarify  our  theories  of  humor,  but  can 
also  lead  to  important  discoveries  about  human  intelligence,  language,  problem 
solving,  and  information  processing  more  generally. 

Moreover,  as  artificial  intelligence  systems,  such  as  robots,  become  increasingly 
sophisticated  in  the  future,  it  may  be  important  for  them  to  be  able  to  generate  and 
understand  humor  in  order  to  communicate  more  effectively  and  in  a  more  congenial 
way  with  the  humans  with  whom  they  interact.  On  a  more  philosophical  note,  we  can 
consider  whether  truly  intelligent  robots  might  even  require  a  sense  of  humor  in  order 
to  cope  with  the  incongruous  and  inconsistent  perspectives  that  confront  any  intelli- 
gent being  functioning  autonomously  in  the  real  world  and  interacting  with  other 
intelligent  beings.  The  idea  that  humor  is  more  than  just  a  luxury  is  suggested  by  the- 
ories that  it  evolved  in  humans  as  a  mode  of  interpersonal  communication  for  dealing 
with  conflicting  perspectives  (Mulkay,  1988),  or  as  a  cognitive  coping  mechanism  that 
is  necessary  for  survival  (Dixon,  1980).  These  questions  are  similar  to  questions  about 
whether  artificially  intelligent  systems  functioning  in  the  real  world  would  require 
some  analog  of  emotion  (Trappl,  Petta,  and  Payr,  2002). 

Ritchie  (2001,  2004)  has  advocated  an  "experimental  AI"  approach,  in  which 
computer  programming  is  used  as  a  means  of  testing  cognitive  (and  particularly 
linguistic)  theories  of  humor.  In  order  for  a  theory  to  be  implemented  in  a  computer 
program,  it  needs  to  be  formal,  precise,  detailed,  and  rigorous,  conforming  to  the 
principles  of  generative  linguistics  and  AI.  Thus,  AI  investigations  provide  a  way  of 
sniffing  out  fuzzy  thinking  and  faulty  logic  that  might  not  otherwise  be  apparent  in 
theoretical  formulations.  Unfortunately,  according  to  Ritchie,  most  of  the  existing 
theories  of  humor  are  too  vague  and  imprecise  to  be  of  much  use  to  AI.  For  example, 


Ritchie  (1999)  criticized  the  traditional  incongruity-resolution  theories  (which  I  dis- 
cussed in  Chapter  3),  pointing  out  that  the  ideas  of  incongruity  and  resolution  have 
not  been  defined  clearly  enough  and  that  different  theories  use  these  concepts  in  dif- 
ferent ways.  In  particular,  although  they  are  often  seen  as  being  equivalent,  Shultz's 
(1976)  theory  (which  Ritchie  refers  to  as  the  "surprise  disambiguation  model")  is,  on 
close  analysis,  actually  quite  different  from  Suls'  (1972)  theory  (the  "two-stage 
model").  The  two  theories  have  different  implications  and  apply  to  different  classes 
of  jokes  (see  also  Ritchie,  in  press).  Ritchie  (2004)  has  also  criticized  Raskin  and 
Attardo's  General  Theory  of  Verbal  Humor  (discussed  earlier),  as  being  too  vague  in 
its  present  form  for  computer  implementation. 

One  reason  for  the  vagueness  and  imprecision  of  many  theories,  according  to 
Ritchie,  is  that  they  attempt  to  explain  too  many  different  types  of  humor.  Ritchie 
strongly  rejects  the  quest  for  a  "grand  theory  of  humor"  at  the  present  time,  arguing 
instead  that  we  need  to  identify  specific  subclasses  that  can  be  thoroughly  character- 
ized and  implemented  on  a  computer.  Only  after  we  have  done  this  with  a  large 
number  of  types  can  we  build  up  a  comprehensive  theory  that  accounts  for  all  kinds 
of  humor.  Accordingly,  Ritchie  has  narrowed  his  focus  to  verbal  jokes,  and  even  more 
narrowly  to  certain  types  of  jokes  that  share  particular  verbal  mechanisms  (e.g., 
punning  riddles). 

Although  one  could  theoretically  attempt  to  develop  a  program  that  is  able  to 
process  verbal  texts  that  are  fed  into  it  and  determine  whether  or  not  they  are  funny, 
Ritchie  suggests  that  the  more  practical  place  to  begin  is  with  programs  that  apply  a 
given  theory  to  generate  humorous  texts.  Human  judges  can  then  determine  whether 
the  output  of  the  program  is  indeed  humorous.  By  observing  the  behavior  of  the 
program  (i.e.,  the  types  of  jokes  it  produces),  one  can  obtain  useful  insights  into  the 
weaknesses  of  the  theory  underlying  it.  This  can  then  lead  to  further  refinements  of 
the  theory  and  corresponding  "tweaking"  of  the  program.  Thus,  the  goal  of  this  sort 
of  programming  enterprise  is  not  so  much  the  program  itself  but  the  refinement  of 
the  theoretical  ideas  underlying  it. 

Kim  Binsted  and  Graeme  Ritchie  (1997)  have  taken  this  approach  in  developing 
a  computer  program  called  Joke  Analysis  and  Production  Engine  QAPE)  that  gener- 
ates a  specific  class  of  jokes  known  as  punning  riddles.  These  are  question-answer 
jokes  that  are  based  on  a  pun  (e.g.,  What's  the  difference  between  a  hairy  dog  and  a 
painter?  One  sheds  his  coat,  the  other  coats  his  shed.).  Binsted  and  Ritchie  began  by 
developing  a  formal  model  of  the  punning  mechanisms  underlying  these  types  of 
riddles,  identifying  a  set  of  symbolic  rules  about  the  meaning  combinations  and  textual 
forms  involved.  These  rules  were  then  built  into  a  program  that  also  has  access  to  a 
large  natural  language  lexicon  (dictionary)  of  the  kind  used  in  AI  research  generally. 
This  lexicon  contains  a  large  number  of  words,  along  with  information  about  their 
phonetic  pronunciation,  lexical  usage,  and  syntactic  meaning.  It  is  important  to  note 
that  this  lexicon  does  not  contain  any  information  that  could  be  conceived  as  inher- 
ently "funny."  Nonetheless,  by  searching  through  the  lexicon  for  suitable  word  pairs 
that  meet  the  criteria  described  by  the  rules,  and  applying  various  basic  templates  of 


riddle  structure,  the  program  is  able  to  generate  a  virtually  limitless  number  of  novel 

The  following  are  some  examples  of  the  funnier  riddles  that  were  generated  by 
JAPE  (from  Ritchie,  2004): 

What  do  you  call  a  ferocious  nude?  A  grizzly  bare. 

What  do  you  get  when  you  cross  breakfast  food  with  a  murderer?  A  cereal  killer. 

What's  the  difference  between  leaves  and  a  car?  One  you  brush  and  rake,  the  other  you  rush  and 

What's  the  difference  between  a  horse  and  a  wagon?  One  bolts  and  jumps,  the  other  jolts  and  bumps. 

Binsted,  Pain,  and  Ritchie  (1997)  conducted  a  study  to  evaluate  the  output  of 
JAPE,  using  a  sample  of  8-  to  11 -year-old  children  as  judges.  They  presented  these 
subjects  with  a  random  selection  of  JAPE-produced  riddles,  human-produced  riddles 
(taken  from  published  joke  books),  nonsense  nonjokes,  and  sensible  nonjokes.  The 
children  were  asked  to  determine  whether  each  text  was  a  joke  and,  if  so,  how  funny 
it  was  and  whether  they  had  heard  it  before.  The  results  showed  that  the  JAPE- 
produced  riddles  were  identified  as  jokes  just  as  reliably  as  the  human-produced  ones, 
and  both  were  easily  distinguished  from  the  non-jokes.  Although  the  JAPE-produced 
jokes  were  rated  as  less  funny,  on  average,  than  the  human-produced  jokes,  a  number 
of  the  JAPE  riddles  were  rated  as  being  just  as  funny  as  those  produced  by  humans. 
Further  analysis  of  the  less  funny  riddles  produced  by  JAPE  may  lead  to  future  refine- 
ments of  the  program  and,  at  the  same  time,  a  more  precise  linguistic  theory  of  this 
type  of  humor. 

In  addition  to  the  JAPE  program,  Binsted  and  Ritchie  (2001)  analyzed  the  struc- 
ture and  formal  regularities  of  another  class  of  joke,  which  they  referred  to  as  "story 
puns,"  and  offered  some  suggestions  about  a  possible  computational  model  for  their 
production.  Ritchie  (2004)  also  described  a  number  of  other  computer  programs  that 
have  been  developed  by  other  researchers  using  a  variety  of  approaches.  As  one 
example,  Bruce  Katz  (1993)  took  a  connectionist  approach  in  developing  a  neural 
network  model  of  incongruity  in  humor  that  attempted  also  to  incorporate  concepts 
of  arousal,  sexual  and  aggressive  themes,  and  hedonic  tone  (i.e.,  mirth). 

Although  computational  models  such  as  JAPE  appear  to  be  quite  promising, 
Ritchie  (2001,  2004)  acknowledges  that  they  are  still  at  a  very  early  stage  of  develop- 
ment. The  implementation  rules  underlying  this  program  are  not  tied  to  any  real 
hypotheses  about  humor  in  general,  and  it  is  not  clear  how  to  generalize  from  this 
model  to  other  forms  of  humor.  In  addition,  a  complete  computational  model  of 
humor  will  ultimately  require  the  development  of  truly  intelligent  systems  with  a  vast 
foundation  of  encyclopedic  knowledge  coupled  with  sophisticated  reasoning  abilities. 
Nonetheless,  Ritchie  contends  that  steps  can  be  taken  toward  this  ultimate  goal  by 
breaking  the  problem  into  smaller  chunks,  identifying  specific  classes  of  humor,  and 
developing  rigorous  formal  descriptions  that  can  be  implemented  using  existing  tech- 
nology. "The  overall  message,"  states  Ritchie  (2001,  p.  132),  "is  that  endeavoring  to 
develop  computational  models  of  humor  is  a  worthwhile  enterprise  both  for  artificial 


intelligence  and  for  those  interested  in  humor,  but  we  are  starting  from  a  very  meager 
foundation,  and  the  challenges  are  significant." 

Ritchie  has  argued  that  attempts  to  implement  cognitive  theories  of  humor  in 
computer  programs  are  beneficial  to  psychologists  as  well  as  linguists  by  providing  a 
way  of  testing  theories  and  alerting  theorists  to  weaknesses  in  their  models.  To  be 
psychologically  relevant,  however,  it  is  important  that  the  computer  simulations 
carry  out  the  tasks  in  the  same  way  that  humans  are  assumed  to  do.  For  example, 
although  computer  chess  programs  are  capable  of  outplaying  most  of  the  best  human 
players,  they  operate  very  differently  than  human  chess  players,  and  are  therefore  not 
a  very  good  test  of  cognitive  theories  of  human  chess  playing.  Similarly,  it  is  not 
entirely  clear  that  programs  like  JAPE  generate  humor  in  the  same  way  that  humans 

Ritchie's  recommendation  for  more  narrowly  focused  theories  applied  to  discrete 
types  of  humor  may  also  be  a  useful  suggestion  for  psychological  humor  research, 
although  this  arguably  depends  on  the  goals  of  the  individual  researcher.  If  the  goal 
is  to  identify  general  characteristics  of  humor  that  distinguish  it  from  other  human 
activities,  then  broader,  more  general  theories  may  be  appropriate.  On  the  other  hand, 
if  the  goal  is  to  describe  in  detail  how  people  cognitively  process  particular  types  of 
humor,  then  greater  progress  will  likely  be  made  with  research  aimed  at  testing  spe- 
cific hypotheses  derived  from  narrowly  focused  theories.  However,  for  the  purposes 
of  understanding  psychological  aspects  of  humor,  it  may  not  be  as  necessary  to  make 
such  fine-grained  distinctions  (e.g.,  distinguishing  between  several  different  classes  of 
puns),  and  psychologists  may  find  it  useful  to  partition  the  humor  domain  ("carve 
nature  at  its  joints")  in  different  ways  than  do  AI  researchers.  In  any  case,  for  the  psy- 
chologist, advances  in  AI  research  on  humor  may  be  viewed  as  a  rich  source  of  poten- 
tial hypotheses  for  further  experimental  research.  Ritchie  (1999)  listed  a  number  of 
research  questions  that  would  be  amenable  to  psychological  investigations  as  well  as 
studies  in  AI. 


Most  of  the  cognitive  theories  that  have  been  developed  to  date  attempt  to  explain 
the  processes  involved  in  the  comprehension  of  humor,  but  they  do  not  address  the 
question  of  what  makes  humor  so  enjoyable.  They  may  explain  how  we  come  to 
understand  a  joke  and  recognize  that  something  is  funny,  but  they  do  not  explain  why 
we  are  so  motivated  to  seek  out  and  participate  in  many  forms  of  humor  during  our 
daily  lives.  Indeed,  as  Max  Eastman  (1936)  noted  many  years  ago,  humor  theorists 
often  discuss  humor  as  though  it  were  a  very  serious  business,  and  you  would  not 
know  from  reading  their  writings  that  they  are  dealing  with  something  that  is  inher- 
ently pleasurable. 

As  I  noted  in  previous  chapters,  humor  involves  emotional  and  social  as  well  as 
cognitive  aspects.  The  relation  between  cognition  and  emotion  is  a  thorny  topic  in 
cognitive  psychology  generally,  and  most  cognitive  psychologists  view  it  as  outside 


the  scope  of  their  research  activities.  Ultimately,  though,  it  would  seem  that  a  com- 
plete understanding  of  human  cognition  in  general  will  require  an  understanding  of 
the  role  of  emotion.  Indeed,  there  is  some  evidence  that  seemingly  purely  rational 
processes,  such  as  decision  making,  are  impossible  without  some  emotional  input 
(Damasio,  1994). 

The  view  of  humor  as  cognitive  play  may  provide  a  framework  for  thinking  about 
the  interaction  of  cognitive,  emotional,  and  social  elements.  When  we  engage  in 
humor,  we  are  playing  with  language  and  ideas  (schemas,  scripts)  in  much  the  same 
way  that  children  (and  adults)  play  with  physical  objects,  exploring  new  and  unusual 
ways  of  using  them,  and  delighting  in  these  novel  applications.  For  a  child,  an  ordi- 
nary stick  can  be  an  airplane,  a  person,  or  a  rifle,  evoking  multiple  schemas  concur- 
rently. The  incongruity  of  humor  that  we  have  been  discussing  can  be  seen  as  a 
manifestation  of  this  play  with  ideas,  where  words  and  concepts  are  used  in  ways  that 
are  surprising,  unusual,  and  incongruous,  activating  schemas  with  which  they  are  not 
normally  associated.  As  discussed  in  the  previous  chapter,  Michael  Apter  (1982) 
referred  to  the  playful  elaborations  of  multiple  cognitive  schemas  as  "synergy,"  and 
noted  that  there  is  something  inherently  enjoyable  about  this  activity  when  we  are  in 
a  playful,  nonserious  state  of  mind. 

This  view  of  humor  as  cognitive  play  also  sheds  light  on  the  mechanisms  of 
jokes  that  we  have  been  discussing.  The  simultaneous  activation  of  multiple  schemas 
to  try  to  make  sense  of  a  joke  enables  both  the  joke  teller  and  the  listener  to  engage 
in  playful  cognitive  synergies.  As  Forabosco  (1992)  has  pointed  out,  the  "resolutions" 
involved  in  jokes  are  really  "pseudo-resolutions,"  since  they  do  not  actually  make  sense 
in  a  literal  way.  Thus,  they  are  a  way  of  playing  creatively  with  the  cognitive  mecha- 
nisms that  we  normally  use  in  more  "serious"  contexts  for  seeking  meaning  in  the 

Evolutionary  theories  of  emotions  suggest  that  they  evolved  because  they  moti- 
vate us  to  behave  in  certain  ways  that  have  proven  beneficial  for  survival  and  repro- 
duction, avoiding  certain  situations  and  approaching  others  (Plutchik,  1991).  As  I 
noted  in  Chapter  1  (and  will  discuss  more  fully  in  Chapter  6),  research  on  primates 
and  other  animals  indicates  that  the  playful  cognitive  activity  involved  in  humor  likely 
evolved  from  mammalian  rough-and-tumble  social  play.  The  associated  positive 
emotion  of  mirth  is  what  motivates  individuals  to  engage  in  this  activity.  Panksepp 
(1998)  has  proposed  a  "ludic"  (playful)  emotion  system  in  the  brain  that  underlies  pre- 
sumably adaptive  playful  activities  (including  humor)  and  their  associated  positive 
emotions.  The  fact  that  the  cognitive  play  of  humor  elicits  the  positive  emotion  of 
mirth  suggests  that  this  sort  of  flexible,  exploratory  cognitive  behavior  has  an  adap- 
tive function,  perhaps  because  of  its  benefits  for  flexible  thinking,  creativity,  and 
problem  solving  (Fagen,  1981)  or  as  a  means  of  facilitating  social  interaction  and 
bonding  (Panksepp  and  Burgdorf,  2003).  Also,  as  we  have  seen,  the  research  of  Isen 
and  her  colleagues  indicates  that  positive  emotional  states,  in  themselves,  promote 
creative  thinking  and  problem  solving  as  well  as  fostering  social  responsibility  and 
prosocial  behaviors  such  as  helpfulness  and  generosity  (Isen,  2003).  I  will  return  to 
these  evolutionary  issues  in  Chapter  6. 



What  have  we  learned  about  cognitive  processes  in  humor?  The  idea  that  some  sort 
of  incongruity  is  the  basis  of  all  humor  seems  to  be  generally  supported.  However,  it 
is  far  from  clear  exactly  how  incongruity  should  be  defined  or  conceptualized,  and 
whether  it  is  a  single  mechanism  that  applies  to  all  forms  of  humor  or  whether 
we  need  to  invoke  different  types  of  incongruity  for  different  types  of  humor.  Con- 
temporary theories  based  on  schema  and  script  concepts  have  contributed  a  great  deal 
to  our  understanding,  although  further  work  is  needed  to  make  them  more  precise 
and  rigorous.  These  theories  suggest  that  "resolution"  of  incongruity  in  jokes  may 
be  best  conceived  as  a  mechanism  for  activating  several  schemas  simultaneously, 
rather  than  a  way  of  replacing  one  schema  with  another  (as  suggested  by  earlier 
incongruity-resolution  theories).  Cognitive  psychologists  have  developed  a  number 
of  techniques  for  investigating  the  activation  of  particular  schemas  "on  line"  during 
the  processing  of  information.  Future  research  using  these  methodologies  will  be  ben- 
eficial for  conducting  empirical  tests  of  the  hypotheses  derived  from  schema-based 

Much  of  the  past  theoretical  and  empirical  work  focused  on  jokes  as  a  prototype 
of  humor.  However,  jokes  are  a  relatively  insignificant  source  of  humor  in  most 
people's  daily  lives,  and  the  cognitive  mechanisms  involved  in  them  may  be  somewhat 
different  from  those  in  other  forms  of  humor.  It  is  risky  for  theorists  to  attempt  to 
develop  general  theories  of  humor  based  only  on  analyses  of  jokes.  Fortunately,  there 
is  growing  interest  among  cognitive  psychologists  and  linguists  in  other  types  of 
humor  apart  from  jokes,  such  as  conversational  witticisms,  irony,  puns,  and  sarcasm. 
Here,  as  well,  a  positive  trend  is  the  increased  interest  in  the  pragmatics  as  well  as  the 
semantics  of  humor. 

Research  examining  how  people  actually  use  humor  in  everyday  conversations 
and  interactions  (including,  but  not  limited  to,  telling  jokes)  will  likely  lead  to  better 
understanding  of  cognitive  as  well  as  social  aspects  of  humor.  How  a  joke  is  cogni- 
tively  processed  in  the  context  of  everyday  social  interactions  (including  the  social 
context  of  a  psychology  laboratory)  may  be  quite  different  from  the  idealized  processes 
invoked  in  semantic  theories  that  do  not  take  pragmatics  into  account.  Indeed,  as  we 
have  seen,  recent  research  indicates  that  information  about  the  social  context  plays  an 
important  role  in  the  comprehension  of  conversational  types  of  humor  such  as  irony 
and  sarcasm.  Future  cognitive  research  should  also  go  beyond  the  linguistic  types  of 
humor  and  begin  to  address  nonverbal  forms,  such  as  slapstick  comedy  and  acciden- 
tal humor. 

Another  limitation  of  cognitive  research  on  humor  is  that  it  has  focused  almost 
exclusively  on  humor  comprehension  rather  than  humor  creation.  This  reflects  the 
more  general  state  of  affairs  in  psycholinguistics  and  linguistics,  where  research  on 
language  comprehension  far  outstrips  work  on  language  production.  Although  there 
have  been  some  isolated  attempts  by  psychologists  to  address  the  cognitive  processes 
involved  in  the  creation  of  humor  (Shultz  and  Scott,  1974),  this  is  a  topic  that  awaits 
further  investigation. 


There  is  considerable  evidence  that  exposure  to  humor  affects  other  cognitive 
processes,  particularly  memory  and  creativity.  Enhanced  memory  for  humorous  mate- 
rial seems  to  be  due  to  selective  attention  to  and  greater  elaboration  of  humorous  ele- 
ments at  the  expense  of  less  humorous  information.  The  effects  of  humor  on  creativity 
appear  to  be  due  to  emotional  rather  than  purely  cognitive  mechanisms.  The  emo- 
tional component  of  humor  has  not  received  much  attention  from  cognitively 
oriented  psychologists  and  linguists.  The  view  of  humor  as  cognitive  play  may 
provide  a  framework  for  integrating  the  pleasurable  emotional  aspect  with  the 
cognitive  mechanisms  of  humor. 

As  in  cognitive  science  generally,  the  interdisciplinary  nature  of  the  cognitive 
study  of  humor  is  apparent,  with  important  contributions  coming  from  linguistics  and 
computer  science  as  well  as  psychology.  Indeed,  many  important  theoretical  advances 
in  recent  decades  have  originated  in  linguistics  rather  than  psychology.  However, 
there  is  also  a  small  but  active  nucleus  of  psycholinguists  who  have  continued  to  make 
valuable  theoretical  and  empirical  contributions,  particularly  in  the  study  of  irony  and 

At  the  present  time,  the  field  is  ripe  for  further  psychological  research  on  cogni- 
tive aspects  of  humor.  As  noted  throughout  this  chapter,  there  are  a  great  many 
research  questions  and  hypotheses  coming  from  a  variety  of  theories  that  could  be 
readily  investigated  empirically  using  the  experimental  methodologies  available  to 
psychologists.  Further  research  on  cognitive  aspects  of  humor  may  not  only  provide 
a  better  understanding  of  the  ubiquitous  phenomena  of  humor,  but  may  also  shed 
light  on  other  more  basic  questions  of  interest  to  psychologists,  such  as  the  interface 
between  cognition  and  emotion,  comprehension  of  ambiguous  meaning,  and  cogni- 
tive aspects  of  nonverbal  as  well  as  verbal  interpersonal  communication.  Research 
questions  relating  to  cognitive  aspects  of  humor  could  form  the  basis  of  a  good  many 
Masters  and  PhD  theses  for  years  to  come. 



s  I  have  noted  previously,  humor  is  fun- 
damentally a  social  phenomenon.  We  laugh  and  joke  much  more  frequently  when  we 
are  with  other  people  than  when  we  are  alone  (R.  A.  Martin  and  Kuiper,  1999;  Provine 
and  Fischer,  1989).  Those  rare  occasions  when  we  do  laugh  by  ourselves  typically 
involve  "pseudo-social"  situations,  such  as  reading  a  book,  watching  a  television 
program,  or  recalling  an  amusing  experience  with  other  people.  The  interpersonal 
aspects  of  humor  are  of  particular  interest  to  social  psychology,  which  has  been  defined 
as  "the  scientific  study  of  how  individuals'  thoughts,  feelings,  and  behaviors  are  influ- 
enced by  other  people"  (Breckler,  Olson,  and  Wiggins,  2006,  p.  5).  As  we  will  see  in 
this  chapter,  humor  is  one  of  the  methods  that  people  use  to  influence  each  other  in 
a  complex  variety  of  ways.  Social  psychologists  study  such  topics  as  social  perception, 
interpersonal  attraction,  communication,  attitudes,  prejudice,  persuasion,  close  rela- 
tionships, group  processes,  and  so  on.  It  is  easy  to  see  that  humor  can  play  an  impor- 
tant role  in  all  of  these  areas. 

Social  psychology  is  closely  related  to  several  other  academic  disciplines,  includ- 
ing sociology,  anthropology,  and  linguistics,  each  of  which  has  made  important  con- 
tributions to  our  understanding  of  social  aspects  of  humor.  In  this  chapter,  I  will 
therefore  discuss  some  of  the  contributions  of  these  other  disciplines  along  with  those 
of  psychology.  I  will  begin  by  discussing  humor  as  a  method  of  interpersonal  com- 
munication and  influence,  followed  by  an  overview  of  its  many  social  functions,  and 
an  exploration  of  how  these  relate  to  humorous  forms  of  teasing.  I  will  then  examine 



social  aspects  of  laughter,  the  vocal  and  facial  expression  of  the  humor-related  emotion 
of  mirth.  In  the  remainder  of  the  chapter,  I  will  review  research  findings  on  the  role 
of  humor  in  several  of  the  major  topic  areas  of  social  psychology,  including  social  per- 
ception and  interpersonal  attraction,  persuasion,  attitudes  and  prejudice,  intimate 
relationships,  and  gender. 


Many  of  the  traditional  theories  and  much  of  the  early  research  on  the  psychol- 
ogy of  humor  neglected  the  interpersonal  aspects,  focusing  instead  on  cognitive  and 
emotional  processes  taking  place  within  the  individual.  Most  of  the  early  studies  exam- 
ined participants'  reactions  to  jokes  and  cartoons  in  the  laboratory,  which  does  not 
provide  much  information  about  how  humor  is  normally  expressed  in  everyday  social 
interactions.  In  recent  years,  however,  researchers  in  psychology,  as  well  as  other  dis- 
ciplines, have  been  giving  more  attention  to  social  aspects  of  humor,  examining  in 
particular  its  functions  in  interpersonal  communication  and  influence.  This  change  in 
perspective  has  been  accompanied  by  a  shift  in  focus  away  from  canned  jokes  as  the 
prototype  of  humor  to  other  forms  that  occur  spontaneously  in  the  course  of  ordi- 
nary conversation,  such  as  teasing,  irony,  and  witty  banter. 

I  have  been  suggesting  in  this  book  that  humor  is  best  viewed  as  a  form  of  play 
that  comprises  cognitive  (nonserious  incongruity),  emotional  (mirth),  and  expressive 
(laughter)  components.  All  of  these  elements  of  humor  have  a  social  dimension.  The 
nonserious  incongruities  that  elicit  humor  typically  have  to  do  with  funny  things  that 
people  say  or  do.  Jokes  are  almost  always  about  people,  not  animals  or  inanimate 
objects.  The  emotion  of  mirth  is  also  typically  shared  with  other  people  (see  Figure 
3).  As  Michelle  Shiota  and  her  colleagues  (2004)  have  suggested,  the  shared  experi- 
ence of  mirth  serves  important  social  functions  in  establishing  and  maintaining  close 
relationships,  enhancing  feelings  of  attraction  and  commitment,  and  coordinating 
mutually  beneficial  activities.  Laughter  is  also  inherently  social,  communicating  one's 
mirthful  emotional  state  to  others  as  well  as  inducing  this  emotion  in  one's  listeners 
(Owren  and  Bachorowski,  2003;  Russell  et  al.,  2003).  Thus,  while  humor  is  a  form  of 
play  that  we  enjoy  for  its  own  sake,  it  also  serves  important  social  functions  that  likely 
contributed  to  our  evolutionary  survival.  As  I  suggested  in  Chapter  1,  some  of  the 
social  functions  of  humor  may  be  co-optations  in  which,  with  the  emergence  of  higher 
linguistic  and  cognitive  abilities  and  more  complex  social  organization,  play-related 
mirthful  activities  were  adapted  in  human  evolution  for  a  wide  variety  of  purposes 
having  to  do  with  interpersonal  communication  and  influence  (Gervais  and  Wilson, 

Sociologist  Michael  Mulkay  (1988)  suggested  that  people  interact  with  one 
another  using  two  basic  modes  of  communication:  serious  and  humorous  (referred  to 
by  Victor  Raskin,  1985,  as  the  "bona-fide"  and  "non-bona-fide"  modes,  respectively). 
According  to  Mulkay,  both  of  these  are  ordinary,  everyday  methods  of  discourse,  but 
they  operate  according  to  fundamentally  different  principles.  In  the  serious  mode,  we 


FIGU  RE  3     Most  humor  occurs  spontaneously  in  the  context  of  ordinary  social  interactions. 
©  Monica  Lau/Getty  Images/PhotoDisc 

attempt  to  be  logically  consistent  and  coherent,  we  seek  to  avoid  ambiguity  and  con- 
tradiction, and  we  assume  that  there  is  a  unitary  external  reality  that  is  shared  by  every- 
one. However,  this  mode  of  communication  is  often  inadequate,  since  different 
individuals  and  groups  often  have  quite  different  perceptions  of  reality  and  disagree 
about  their  interpretations  of  events.  When  people  attempt  to  communicate,  these 
multiple  realities  frequently  collide,  producing  contradiction,  incongruity,  and  inco- 
herence, which  the  serious  mode  of  discourse  is  unable  to  handle  easily. 

According  to  Mulkay,  the  social  play  activity  of  humor  was  co-opted  over  the 
course  of  human  evolution  as  a  way  for  people  to  deal  with  this  multiplicity  and 
inherent  contradiction  in  their  communications  with  one  another.  Making  use  of 
Arthur  Koestler's  (1964)  concept  of  bisociation  (discussed  in  Chapters  1,  3,  and  4), 
Mulkay  views  humor  as  a  way  of  incorporating,  embracing,  and  even  celebrating  the 
contradictions,  incongruities,  and  ambiguities  inherent  in  interpersonal  relationships. 
By  simultaneously  expressing  opposite  meanings,  the  humorous  mode  provides  a 
shared  conceptual  framework  that  embraces  contradictions,  rather  than  avoiding 
them,  and  thereby  enables  people  to  negotiate  otherwise  difficult  interpersonal 

For  example,  humorous  joking  and  playful  teasing  can  be  a  way  for  spouses  or 
other  partners  in  a  close  relationship  to  communicate  about  a  topic  on  which  they 
strongly  disagree,  instead  of  using  the  more  serious  mode  and  getting  into  endless 
arguments  that  cannot  resolve  the  issue  and  only  lead  to  an  escalation  of  anger  and 
bitterness,  destabilizing  the  relationship.  The  humorous  mode  allows  them  to  express 
their  strongly  opposing  views  and  acknowledge  their  conflict  while,  at  the  very  same 
time,  communicating  an  opposite  message  about  their  continuing  commitment  to  the 
relationship.  Thus,  their  humor  is  a  way  of  playing  with,  and  laughing  about,  the 


incongruity  inherent  in  the  contradictory  feelings  and  attitudes  that  they  simultane- 
ously hold  toward  one  another.  The  positive  feelings  of  mirth  generated  by  this  per- 
ception of  playful  incongruity,  and  the  laughter  that  they  share,  help  to  maintain 
cohesion  and  positive  feelings  about  the  relationship,  despite  their  differing  views. 
This  is  just  one  example  of  the  many  ways  humor  enables  people,  in  many  different 
kinds  of  relationships,  to  communicate  information  about  their  beliefs,  attitudes, 
motives,  feelings,  and  needs,  which  may  not  be  as  amenable  to  the  serious  mode 
of  discourse.  Not  only  does  this  mode  of  communication  convey  information,  but  it 
also  induces  mirth  and  laughter,  further  influencing  the  attitudes  and  feelings  of 

As  noted  in  Chapter  1 ,  humor  is  a  ubiquitous  form  of  interaction  that  occurs  in 
all  types  of  social  contexts  and  takes  many  different  forms.  These  include  canned  jokes, 
amusing  personal  anecdotes,  spontaneous  witty  comments,  ironic  observations,  puns, 
teasing,  sarcasm,  double  entendres,  and  so  on.  Humor  can  also  be  evoked  uninten- 
tionally, such  as  when  people  laugh  in  response  to  someone  misusing  a  word  or  behav- 
ing in  a  clumsy  manner  (e.g.,  tripping,  or  spilling  a  drink).  All  of  these  forms  of  humor 
can  serve  important  interpersonal  functions. 


Anthropologists  studying  preliterate  societies  have  noted  the  widespread  existence 
of  "joking  relationships"  (Radcliffe-Brown,  1952)  in  which  individuals  who  are  related 
in  particular  ways  are  expected  to  interact  with  humor,  including  joking,  teasing, 
banter,  ridicule,  and  practical  jokes  (see  Apte,  1985,  for  a  review  of  this  research).  For 
example,  joking  relationships  occur  in  various  cultures  between  individuals  who  are 
potential  sexual  partners,  between  a  man  and  his  brothers-in-law,  between  grandpar- 
ents and  grandchildren,  or  between  members  of  different  clans.  Although  the  form 
and  pattern  of  joking  relationships  vary  across  cultures,  they  all  seem  to  serve  an 
important  function  of  regulating  social  interactions  and  maintaining  social  harmony 
and  stability.  A  number  of  ethnographic  studies  suggest  that  similar  kinds  of  joking 
relationships  commonly  exist  in  industrialized  societies  as  well,  as  in  the  sorts  of  joking 
and  teasing  relationships  that  develop  in  work  settings  and  in  friendship  groups  to 
establish  group  identity  and  exclude  outsiders  (Apte,  1985). 

Humor  serves  a  variety  of  functions,  not  only  in  these  sorts  of  joking  relation- 
ships, but  in  all  types  of  interpersonal  interactions  (Kane  et  al.,  1977;  Long  and 
Graesser,  1988;  Martineau,  1972;  Norrick,  1993).  Most  of  these  have  to  do  with  the 
fact  that  it  is  inherently  ambiguous  and  even  contradictory,  and  can  therefore  be  inter- 
preted in  several  different  ways  at  the  same  time.  When  someone  says  something  in 
a  humorous  way,  he  or  she  can  always  take  it  back  by  saying  "I  was  only  joking." 
Indeed,  since  everyone  recognizes  the  ambiguous  nature  of  humor,  it  is  often  not  even 
necessary  to  make  such  a  disclaimer.  In  this  way,  humor  enables  individuals  to  "save 
face"  for  themselves  and  others.  The  concept  of  "face"  comes  from  Erving  Goffrnan's 
(1967)  analyses  of  social  interactions.  Goffman  defined  face  as  "an  image  of  self  delin- 
eated in  terms  of  approved  social  attributes"  (p.  5).  He  noted  that  people  are  strongly 


motivated  to  avoid  communications  that  are  potentially  face-threatening,  putting 
themselves  or  others  in  an  awkward  or  embarrassing  situation.  Because  of  its  ambi- 
guity and  potential  for  retraction,  humor,  like  politeness,  can  be  a  useful  tactic  for 
protecting  the  face  of  oneself  and  others,  thus  playing  an  important  role  in  facilitat- 
ing social  interaction  (Keltner  et  al.,  1998;  Zajdman,  1995). 

It  is  important  to  note  that  when  we  speak  of  humor  being  "used"  for  particular 
purposes,  this  does  not  mean  that  individuals  are  always  consciously  aware  of  these 
functions  or  are  using  it  in  a  volitional,  strategic  manner.  Since  it  is  usually  sponta- 
neous and  unplanned,  individuals  typically  perceive  their  experiences  of  humor  to  be 
nothing  more  than  playful  fun.  Nonetheless,  in  many  instances,  humor  may  be  serving 
various  purposes  of  which  the  individuals  involved  are  not  fully  aware.  Indeed,  the 
ability  to  deny  any  serious  intentions,  even  to  oneself,  is  part  of  what  makes  humor 
so  effective  in  many  types  of  social  interaction. 

These  uses  of  humor  in  communication  can  have  any  number  of  different 
purposes.  In  a  ground-breaking  early  paper  on  this  topic,  social  psychologists  Thomas 
Kane,  Jerry  Suls,  and  James  Tedeschi  (1977)  observed  that  humor  "can  help  the 
source  to  claim  or  disclaim  responsibility  for  his  actions,  can  reveal  courage  or  relieve 
embarrassment,  may  invoke  normative  commitments  or  release  the  individual  from 
commitments"  (p.  13).  In  the  following  sections,  I  will  discuss  several  of  the  inter- 
personal functions  of  humor  that  have  been  identified.  These  are  not  mutually  exclu- 
sive, since  any  given  instance  of  humor  may  serve  more  than  one  function  at  the  same 

Self-Disclosure,  Social  Probing,  and  Norm  Violation 

Kane  and  colleagues  (1977)  noted  that  we  are  continually  exploring  our  social 
environments  in  order  to  determine  the  values,  attitudes,  knowledge,  emotional  states, 
motives,  and  intentions  of  others.  This  sort  of  information  is  necessary  for  achieving 
our  goals  in  interactions  with  others,  whether  these  are  to  increase  intimacy,  obtain 
desired  favors  and  rewards,  or  exert  influence  over  others.  Because  of  the  potential 
"face  threat"  involved,  the  unspoken  rules  of  social  propriety  often  make  it  difficult 
or  uncomfortable  to  ask  direct  questions  about  these  sorts  of  issues.  There  is  a  risk 
that  our  motives  will  be  misconstrued,  that  we  will  be  resented  for  our  intrusiveness, 
or  that  we  or  others  will  be  embarrassed  in  some  way.  Humor  can  often  be  a  more 
acceptable  and  indirect  way  of  gaining  such  information.  By  making  a  humorous 
remark  about  certain  attitudes,  feelings,  or  opinions,  we  can  reveal  something  about 
ourselves  in  a  way  that  allows  us  to  deny  it  if  it  is  not  well  received.  Moreover,  by 
observing  whether  or  not  others  respond  with  laughter  or  reciprocate  with  similar 
humorous  comments,  we  can  ascertain  whether  they  share  similar  views. 

The  communication  of  attitudes  and  motives  relating  to  sex  is  often  particularly 
fraught  with  risks  of  misunderstanding  and  rejection,  and  humor  is  often  used  to  deal 
with  these  problems.  This  is  likely  why  there  are  so  many  words  with  alternate  sexual 
meanings,  allowing  people  to  use  humorous  double  entendre  and  innuendo  to  discuss 
sexual  matters  in  a  safe  way  (Long  and  Graesser,  1988).  In  an  observational  study  of 
conversations  among  customers  and  staff  in  an  all-night  diner  in  upstate  New  York, 


sociologist  Alf  Walle  (1976)  described  the  way  humor  was  used  by  men  and  women 
to  express  interest  in  a  possible  sexual  liaison.  If  they  were  to  use  serious  modes  of 
communication  in  this  context,  participants  would  run  the  risk  of  causing  offense  to 
the  other  person  and  being  personally  humiliated  by  rejection.  However,  by  telling 
sexual  jokes  and  making  humorous  comments  containing  sexual  innuendo,  they  were 
able  to  probe  the  other  person's  level  of  interest  in  a  way  that  enabled  them  to  save 
face  if  their  interest  was  not  reciprocated. 

This  role  of  humor  as  self-disclosure  and  social  probing  in  sexual  communication 
was  also  illustrated  in  an  early  experiment  by  social  psychologists  Jay  Davis  and 
Amerigo  Farina  (1970).  Male  college  students  were  asked  by  either  an  attractive  or 
an  unattractive  female  experimenter  to  rate  the  funniness  of  either  aggressive  or  sexual 
cartoons.  The  ratings  were  either  given  orally  to  the  experimenter  or  on  paper-and- 
pencil  scales.  The  results  indicated  that  the  highest  funniness  ratings  were  given  by 
the  male  participants  when  they  were  rating  sexual  cartoons  orally  to  the  attractive 
female.  The  researchers  suggested  that  these  responses  to  humor  provided  a  socially 
acceptable  method  for  the  participants  to  let  the  experimenter  know  that  they  were 
sexually  interested  in  her. 

Besides  sexual  topics,  humor  can  be  used  to  self-disclose  and  probe  beliefs  and 
attitudes  regarding  a  wide  variety  of  issues,  such  as  political  and  religious  views  and 
attitudes  toward  people  of  different  ethnicities,  nationalities,  occupations,  or  gender. 
By  making  a  racist  or  sexist  comment  in  a  humorous  manner,  an  individual  can  probe 
the  degree  to  which  such  attitudes  are  tolerated  or  shared  by  others.  Humor  can  also 
be  used  to  probe  people's  emotional  reactions  to  situations.  For  example,  during  times 
of  stress  or  danger  (e.g.,  in  a  high-pressure  work  situation  or  prior  to  a  battle  during 
wartime)  where  showing  distress  or  fear  might  be  construed  as  weakness,  gallows 
humor  may  be  used  to  probe  the  degree  to  which  others  are  experiencing  negative 
emotions  (Kane  et  al.,  1977).  Thus,  humor  can  be  a  useful  tool  for  social  compari- 
son, a  process  whereby  we  seek  information  about  others  in  order  to  evaluate  our  own 
feelings  and  performance  (Morse  and  Gergen,  1970). 

Humor  can  also  be  used  to  push  the  boundaries  of  social  propriety,  attack  "sacred 
cows,"  and  rebel  against  social  norms.  For  example,  by  using  obscenities  or  other  types 
of  shocking  language  in  a  humorous  manner,  one  is  able  to  violate  social  norms  in  a 
way  that  reduces  the  likelihood  that  others  will  take  offense,  since  everyone  knows 
that  humor  is  not  to  be  taken  seriously.  Thus,  one  is  more  likely  to  get  away  with 
breaking  various  taboos,  expressing  prejudiced  attitudes,  or  engaging  in  boorish 
behavior  if  these  are  done  in  a  humorous  rather  than  a  serious  manner.  When  carried 
into  the  public  domain,  iconoclastic  forms  of  humor  such  as  satire  and  comedy  can 
be  used  to  challenge  widely  held  assumptions,  expose  social  ills,  and  bring  about  social 
change  (Ziv,  1984). 


People  often  use  humor  to  save  face  when  they  experience  some  sort  of  failure, 
when  they  are  about  to  be  unmasked  in  some  way,  or  when  they  have  been  caught  in 


a  lie  or  are  found  to  have  engaged  in  inappropriate  behavior  (Kane  et  al.,  1977).  By 
using  humor  to  indicate  that  the  proposed  or  past  action  was  intended  as  a  joke  and 
was  therefore  not  meant  to  be  taken  seriously,  one  can  save  face  by  "decommitting" 
oneself  from  the  action.  For  example,  if  Person  A  threatens  Person  B  in  some  way 
and  this  provokes  a  counter-threat  from  Person  B,  Person  A  can  back  down  by  turning 
the  original  threat  into  a  joke.  Alternatively,  if  Person  B  does  not  comply  with  the 
original  threat  and  it  comes  time  for  Person  A  to  back  up  the  threat  ("put  up  or  shut 
up"),  he  or  she  can  use  humor  instead  of  carrying  out  the  threat,  thus  avoiding  an 
escalation  of  conflict  in  the  relationship  while  still  maintaining  his  or  her  reputation 
for  credibility.  By  laughing  in  response  to  the  humor,  Person  B  in  turn  indicates  a 
tacit  agreement  to  treat  the  original  threat  as  nonserious.  Similarly,  two  friends  who 
have  allowed  a  disagreement  to  escalate  into  an  argument  can,  by  interjecting  a 
humorous  remark,  relieve  the  tension  and  avoid  the  loss  of  face  that  would  occur  if 
either  one  was  forced  to  back  down  (Long  and  Graesser,  1988). 

Over  the  course  of  a  year  in  a  small  community  in  Newfoundland,  Craig  Palmer 
(1993)  conducted  an  observational  study  of  males  playing  floor  hockey,  a  rough  sport 
involving  quite  a  lot  of  verbal  and  physical  aggression.  He  found  that,  while  engag- 
ing in  overtly  aggressive  actions,  middle-aged  players  (who  were  more  concerned  with 
establishing  and  maintaining  friendships  with  each  other)  were  more  likely  to  display 
humor  (smiling,  laughter,  and  humorous  comments)  as  compared  to  adolescents  and 
young  adults,  who  were  more  concerned  with  competition.  In  addition,  humor  was 
more  likely  to  accompany  aggressive  behaviors  between  players  with  marked  differ- 
ences in  skill  level,  as  compared  to  those  of  equal  skill.  This  is  presumably  because 
confrontations  between  individuals  with  discrepancies  in  skill  present  more  potential 
for  one  person  being  hurt  or  embarrassed.  Thus,  the  use  of  humor  with  what  would 
otherwise  be  interpreted  as  aggressive  or  provocative  actions  appeared  to  be  a  form 
of  decommitment,  a  way  for  participants  to  communicate  that  the  action  was  not 
to  be  taken  seriously,  and  to  reassure  each  other  of  the  friendly  nature  of  their 

Social  Norms  and  Control 

Besides  being  used  to  test  and  even  violate  social  norms,  Long  and  Graesser 
(1988)  pointed  out  that  humor  can  be  used  to  enforce  social  norms  and  indirectly 
exert  control  over  others'  behavior.  By  using  irony,  teasing,  sarcasm,  or  satire  to  make 
fun  of  certain  attitudes,  behaviors,  or  personality  traits,  members  of  a  group  can  com- 
municate implicit  expectations  and  rules  concerning  the  kinds  of  behavior  that  are 
considered  acceptable  within  the  group.  These  types  of  humor  can  take  the  form  of 
ridiculing  members  of  an  out-group,  or  they  can  be  directed  at  deviant  behaviors  of 
individuals  within  an  in-group  (Martineau,  1972).  Either  way,  this  humor  can  have  a 
coercive  function,  intimidating  group  members  into  conforming  to  the  implied  norms 
out  of  fear  of  embarrassment. 

Similarly,  humor  can  also  be  used  as  an  "unmasking  tactic"  (Kane  et  al.,  1977). 
By  poking  fun  at  another  person,  one  is  communicating  a  refusal  to  accept  the 


identity  projected  by  that  person,  exposing  or  belittling  his  or  her  motives.  Since  the 
message  is  communicated  in  a  humorous  way,  and  is  therefore  subject  to  multiple 
interpretations  simultaneously,  it  is  difficult  for  the  target  to  retaliate  or  to  hold  the 
source  accountable  for  embarrassing  him  or  her.  Thus,  a  humorous  communication 
reduces  the  risk  of  hostility  and  rancor  that  might  be  generated  using  a  more  serious 
mode  of  communication  in  confrontation.  I  will  discuss  teasing  in  greater  detail  later 
in  the  chapter. 

Dews,  Kaplan,  and  Winner  (1995)  conducted  several  experiments  to  investigate 
the  effects  of  using  irony,  as  compared  to  direct  statements,  to  deliver  both  criticisms 
and  compliments.  An  example  of  an  ironic  criticism  is  saying  "Great  game"  to  a  person 
who  has  played  poorly,  whereas  an  ironic  compliment  would  be  "You  sure  sucked  in 
that  game"  after  someone  has  played  particularly  well.  Not  surprisingly,  the  studies 
showed  that  ironic  statements  are  perceived  as  more  humorous  than  direct  statements. 
More  importantly,  irony  also  seemed  to  mute  the  message  conveyed  by  literal 
language:  ironic  criticism  was  perceived  as  less  aggressive  and  insulting  than  direct 
criticism,  whereas  ironic  compliments  were  perceived  as  less  positive  than  direct 
compliments.  Thus,  irony  can  have  a  social  control  function,  enabling  people  to 
express  both  criticism  and  praise  indirectly  and  ambiguously,  avoiding  loss  of  face  for 
speakers  and  listeners  in  the  process. 

Status  and  Hierarchy  Maintenance 

The  role  of  humor  in  controlling  behavior  and  enforcing  social  norms  also  implies 
that  it  can  be  used  by  individuals  to  reinforce  their  own  status  in  a  group  hierarchy. 
For  example,  you  are  more  likely  to  crack  jokes  and  amuse  others  in  a  group  in  which 
you  are  the  leader  or  have  a  position  of  dominance  than  in  a  group  in  which  you  have 
lower  status  and  less  power  than  others.  In  a  frequently  cited  early  study,  sociologist 
Rose  Laub  Coser  (1960)  observed  the  use  of  humor  during  staff  meetings  in  a  psy- 
chiatric hospital.  She  found  that  humor  in  this  context  served  to  reinforce  the  hier- 
archical structure  of  the  relationships  among  staff  members.  Higher-status  senior  staff 
(psychiatrists)  were  much  more  likely  to  use  humor  than  were  junior  staff  (psychiatric 
residents  or  nurses),  and  they  frequently  directed  their  humor  at  junior  staff  in  a  way 
that  conveyed  a  critical  or  corrective  message.  In  turn,  the  junior  staff  members 
refrained  from  directing  humor  at  senior  staff,  but  instead  tended  to  use  it  either  in 
a  self-deprecating  manner  or  as  a  way  of  making  fun  of  outsiders.  Coser  concluded 
that  humor  helps  to  "overcome  the  contradictions  and  ambiguities  inherent  in  the 
complex  social  structure,  and  thereby  to  contribute  to  its  maintenance"  (p.  95).  These 
findings  were  replicated  more  recently  in  another  study  of  humor  among  staff 
members  in  a  psychiatric  unit  (Sayre,  2001). 

Dawn  Robinson  and  Lynn  Smith-Lovin  (2001)  used  a  statistical  technique  called 
event  history  regression  to  analyze  the  use  of  humor  during  conversations  in  29  six- 
person  task  groups  that  were  instructed  to  work  together  on  a  problem.  The  data  sup- 
ported a  model  of  humor  as  a  status-related  activity.  Individuals  who  more  frequently 
interrupted  others  in  conversation  (a  behavior  that  indicates  higher  status)  were  also 


more  likely  to  engage  in  humor  and  make  others  laugh,  even  after  controlling  for  the 
frequency  of  overall  participation  in  group  discussion.  Conversely,  those  who  were 
more  frequently  interrupted  by  others  (reflecting  their  lower  status)  were  less  likely 
to  produce  humor.  There  was  also  evidence  that  the  use  of  humor  early  on  in  the 
group  discussion  was  a  means  for  participants  to  establish  status  in  the  group  hierar- 
chy. In  mixed-sex  groups,  males  (who  tended  to  be  more  dominant  in  a  variety  of 
ways)  were  more  likely  to  express  humor  than  were  females,  and  were  more  likely  to 
elicit  laughter  from  others.  The  status  differences  in  traditional  male  and  female 
gender  roles  may  explain  the  findings  of  many  studies  (which  I  will  discuss  later  in 
the  chapter)  showing  that  men  tend  to  produce  humor  more  than  women,  whereas 
women  tend  to  laugh  more  in  response  to  men's  humor. 

The  use  of  humor  to  maintain  a  position  of  dominance  is  also  evident  in  an  ethno- 
graphic study  by  James  Spradley  and  Brenda  Mann  (1975)  of  interactions  between 
bartenders  and  waitresses  in  an  American  bar.  Much  of  the  humor  that  occurred  in 
these  interactions  took  the  form  of  ridicule,  sexual  insults,  and  lewd  comments,  and 
was  directed  by  the  male  bartenders  toward  the  female  waitresses.  The  authors  dis- 
cussed this  humor  in  terms  of  joking  relationships,  seeing  it  as  a  way  of  relieving  ten- 
sions resulting  from  structurally  created  conflict  in  the  relationships.  However, 
Mulkay  (1988)  pointed  out  that,  rather  than  relieving  tension  for  the  women,  the 
humor  tended  to  increase  their  frustration,  and  was  primarily  a  strategy  adopted 
by  the  men  to  sustain  their  domination  over  the  women.  The  women  were  not 
permitted  to  take  offense  at  the  bartenders'  ribald  and  denigrating  remarks,  whereas 
the  men  could  object  when  a  "girl"  went  "too  far"  with  her  humorous  comments. 
These  types  of  humor,  which  today  would  likely  be  viewed  as  workplace  harassment, 
have  long  been  used  to  reinforce  the  subordinate  position  of  women  and  members 
of  disadvantaged  minority  groups.  Because  the  denigration  occurs  in  a  humorous 
rather  than  a  serious  mode,  it  is  difficult  for  the  targets  to  complain,  since  the 
sources  can  claim  that  they  were  "only  joking."  Indeed,  the  sources  may  even  con- 
vince themselves  that  it  is  "all  in  fun,"  and  that  the  targets  really  have  no  reason  to 
take  offense. 


Whereas  humor  may  be  used  by  higher-status  individuals  to  maintain  dominance 
over  others,  it  can  also  be  used  by  lower-status  persons  as  an  ingratiation  tactic  to  gain 
attention,  approval,  and  favors  from  others  (Kane  et  al.,  1977).  Ingratiation  refers  to 
behaviors  such  as  other-enhancement,  opinion  conformity,  self-deprecation,  and 
feigned  interpersonal  similarity,  which  are  used  to  garner  favors  from  a  higher-status 
person.  When  done  in  a  serious  communication  mode,  ingratiation  runs  the  risk  of 
having  one's  insincerity  unmasked,  especially  when  there  is  considerable  advantage  to 
be  gained  and  when  the  target's  status  is  very  high.  However,  if  ingratiation  is  done 
in  a  humorous  way,  such  as  using  a  "backhanded  compliment,"  there  is  less  likelihood 
that  the  source  will  be  exposed  as  insincere  (Long  and  Graesser,  1988,  p.  54).  For 
example,  to  avoid  sounding  ingratiating,  one  might  say  to  a  basketball  star,  "You  would 


make  a  great  basketball  player  if  you  could  only  learn  to  dribble  the  ball,"  rather  than 
"You  are  an  amazing  player." 

Laughing  at  another  person's  jokes  can  also  be  a  form  of  ingratiation.  The  higher 
the  status  of  a  public  speaker,  the  more  likely  are  his  or  her  jokes  and  funny  anecdotes 
to  evoke  laughter  in  the  audience  (Kane  et  al.,  1977).  In  addition,  ingratiation  may 
involve  efforts  to  amuse  others  at  one's  own  expense,  engaging  in  silly  or  inappropri- 
ate behavior  to  get  a  laugh  from  others,  making  excessively  self-disparaging  witty  com- 
ments, or  laughing  along  with  others  when  one  is  the  target  of  their  teasing  or  ridicule. 
As  we  will  see  in  Chapter  9,  individuals  who  frequently  engage  in  this  sort  of  "self- 
defeating  humor",  although  they  may  be  very  funny  and  witty,  tend  to  have  low  self- 
esteem  and  high  neuroticism  and  have  difficulties  maintaining  satisfactory  personal 
relationships  (R.  A.  Martin  et  al.,  2003). 

Group  Identity  and  Cohesion 

Although  humor  can  be  used  to  reinforce  status  differences  between  people,  it 
can  also  be  a  way  of  enhancing  cohesion  and  a  sense  of  group  identity.  Gary  Alan  Fine 
(1977)  used  the  term  idioculture  to  describe  the  system  of  knowledge,  beliefs,  and 
customs  by  which  a  small  group  of  people  defines  itself  and  enables  its  members  to 
share  a  sense  of  belonging  and  cohesion.  He  suggested  that  humor,  in  the  form  of 
friendly  teasing,  funny  nicknames,  shared  "in-jokes,"  and  slang  terms,  can  contribute 
to  the  idioculture  of  a  group,  providing  a  way  for  members  to  construct  a  shared  reality 
and  sense  of  meaning.  This  function  of  humor  also  occurs  in  close  dyads,  such  as 
married  couples,  for  whom  private  humor  can  create  a  shared  identity  and  thus 
strengthen  their  feelings  of  cohesion. 

In  task-oriented  groups  such  as  those  found  in  work  settings,  interactions  among 
members  have  two  important  functions:  (1)  to  accomplish  group  goals  and  (2)  to  main- 
tain smooth  relations  (Robinson  and  Smith-Lovin,  2001).  Humor  may  help  group 
members  to  maintain  smooth  relations  by  serving  as  a  stress  reliever  when  the  pres- 
sures of  task  accomplishment  begin  to  build.  In  a  field  study  of  humor  among  employ- 
ees in  a  small,  family-owned  business,  Karen  Vinton  (1989)  observed  that  humor 
tended  to  create  bonds  among  the  employees  and  thereby  facilitated  the  accomplish- 
ment of  work  tasks. 

Jenepher  Terrion  and  Blake  Ashforth  (2002)  examined  the  role  of  "putdown 
humor"  in  an  observational  study  of  a  six-week  executive  development  course  for 
senior  police  officers  at  the  Canadian  Police  College  in  Ottawa.  They  concluded  that, 
rather  than  having  a  disruptive  effect,  putdown  humor  "played  a  prominent  role  in 
melding  this  temporary  group  into  a  more  or  less  cohesive  unit"  (p.  80).  They 
observed  a  progression  in  the  targets  of  humor  over  the  six  weeks,  from  putdowns  of 
oneself  to  putdowns  of  shared  identities,  external  groups,  and,  finally,  other  group 
members.  The  use  of  putdown  humor  appeared  to  be  influenced  by  a  set  of  implicit 
social  rules  regarding  the  appropriate  targets,  methods,  and  responses,  which  served 
to  maintain  self-esteem  and  a  positive  group  climate. 


For  example,  putdowns  of  group  members  targeted  relatively  inconsequential 
characteristics,  and  were  only  directed  toward  those  individuals  who  did  not  take 
offense  but  demonstrated  an  ability  to  laugh  along  in  a  good-natured  way.  Interest- 
ingly, when  group  members  were  later  interviewed  about  particular  humorous 
exchanges  that  had  taken  place  within  the  group,  they  often  had  differing  interpreta- 
tions about  the  meaning  of  the  event,  but  assumed  that  their  own  interpretations  were 
shared  by  everyone  else.  Thus,  the  multiplicity  and  ambiguity  of  meaning  in  humor 
seemed  to  enable  group  members  to  interact  as  if  they  shared  common  perceptions, 
thereby  fostering  a  sense  of  community  despite  their  actual  differences  in  perspective. 
The  authors  of  this  study  observed  that  humor  seemed  to  serve  the  function  of  a  col- 
lective social  ritual  that  was  governed  by  implicit  norms  and  enhanced  the  sense  of 
group  solidarity. 

Discourse  Management 

During  the  course  of  a  conversation,  participants  need  to  attend  not  only  to  the 
content  of  what  is  being  said,  but  they  also  need  to  monitor  and  manage  the  flow  of 
the  conversation  (Ervin-Tripp,  1993).  Conversations  are  mutual  activities  that  require 
the  cooperation  of  all  participants  to  make  the  discussion  intelligible  and  satisfactory. 
This  involves  such  discourse  activities  as  turn-taking,  exchanging  control,  setting  the 
tone  or  style  of  the  conversation,  introducing  topics,  shifting  topics,  checking  for 
meaning,  eye  gaze,  repetition,  paraphrasing,  and  terminating  the  conversation. 
Humor  may  be  used  for  many  of  these  purposes. 

In  research  using  the  method  of  conversational  analysis,  Neal  Norrick  (1993) 
studied  these  functions  in  some  detail,  observing  the  way  humor  can  be  used  to  shift 
the  conversation  away  from  a  threatening  topic,  to  change  the  tone  of  the  conversa- 
tion from  one  that  is  serious  to  one  that  is  more  lighthearted,  and  so  on.  As  one 
example,  making  a  pun  based  on  multiple  meanings  of  a  word  that  has  been  used  in 
a  conversation  can  be  a  way  for  one  person  to  humorously  call  attention  to  the  ambi- 
guity in  something  another  person  has  said.  Humor  can  also  be  used  to  initiate  con- 
versations in  situations  in  which  there  is  little  shared  knowledge  between  the 
participants  (e.g.,  strangers).  For  example,  a  witty  comment  about  the  weather  might 
generate  further  conversation,  whereas  a  more  serious  comment  that  simply  states  the 
obvious  might  seem  trite  (Long  and  Graesser,  1988). 

Discourse  management  functions  of  humor  were  studied  by  social  psychologist 
John  La  Gaipa  (1977)  at  the  University  of  Windsor  in  Canada,  who  videotaped  22 
small  groups  of  male  friends  engaging  in  spontaneous  conversations  in  a  college  pub. 
Sequential  analyses  revealed  that  when  one  group  member  made  a  humorous 
comment,  this  typically  resulted  in  a  significant  increase  in  the  conversational  tempo, 
or  rate  of  participation  of  all  the  group  members,  immediately  afterwards.  The  type 
and  target  of  the  humor  affected  the  tempo  in  various  ways.  For  example,  when  the 
humor  involved  friendly  putdowns,  it  led  to  a  greater  increase  in  tempo  if  it  was 
directed  at  a  group  member  (i.e.,  friendly  teasing  of  someone  within  the  group)  than 


if  it  was  in  reference  to  someone  outside  the  group.  However,  this  pattern  was  reversed 
when  the  humor  was  more  hostile  or  aggressive.  When  directed  at  a  person  within 
the  group,  this  type  of  sarcastic  humor  led  to  a  reduction  in  the  rate  of  conversation, 
whereas  nasty  humorous  remarks  about  someone  outside  the  group  led  to  an  increased 
tempo.  These  different  types  of  humor  also  produced  different  amounts  of  laughter, 
but  the  effects  of  humor  on  the  flow  of  conversation  remained  even  after  controlling 
for  the  amount  of  laughter  generated. 

Depending  on  whether  or  not  participants  share  the  same  goals  in  a  conversa- 
tion, the  use  of  humor  in  discourse  management  can  be  disruptive  to  conversation  as 
well  as  facilitative.  For  example,  individuals  who  frequently  make  puns  in  response  to 
ambiguous  words  of  others  can  be  quite  disruptive  to  the  flow  of  the  conversation, 
diverting  the  focus  away  from  the  current  topic  and  toward  their  own  cleverness.  Sim- 
ilarly, joke-telling  can  be  a  way  of  taking  control  of  a  conversation  for  a  relatively 
extended  period  of  time,  putting  on  a  performance  to  which  listeners  are  expected  to 
respond  with  approving  laughter  (Norrick,  2003).  If  other  participants  in  the  con- 
versation desire  a  more  serious  mode  of  discussion  or  a  more  equitable  give-and-take, 
these  uses  of  humor  may  be  viewed  as  intrusive  and  even  aggressive. 

Social  Play 

Besides  these  "serious"  functions  of  humor  in  social  interactions,  humor  can  also 
be  enjoyed  purely  for  its  own  sake  as  a  pleasurable  form  of  social  play.  This  type  of 
humor  most  frequently  occurs  in  groups  of  friends  or  close  acquaintances  of  equal 
status  in  informal  settings.  As  previously  noted,  Michael  Apter  (1982)  viewed  humor 
as  a  playful  paratelic  activity  that  is  enjoyed  for  its  own  sake,  as  opposed  to  the  serious, 
goal-oriented,  arousal-avoidant  telic  mode  of  functioning  in  which  we  find  ourselves 
during  much  of  our  daily  lives. 

In  engaging  in  humor  as  social  play,  participants  typically  abandon,  at  least  tem- 
porarily, any  serious  conversational  goals.  Playing  off  one  another,  they  amuse  them- 
selves with  the  multiple  meanings  of  words  and  ideas,  relating  funny  anecdotes  about 
incongruous  events  and  experiences,  and  often  using  exaggeration,  gestures,  and  facial 
expressions  to  maximize  the  humorous  effect.  Participants  often  experience  high  levels 
of  mirth,  and  laughter  can  be  loud  and  unconstrained  during  these  times.  While  such 
humor  is  enjoyed  for  its  own  sake,  it  nonetheless  often  serves  additional  interpersonal 
functions  of  enhancing  group  cohesiveness,  laughing  at  outsiders,  and  strengthening 
social  bonds. 


Teasing  is  a  particular  form  of  humor  that  serves  many  of  the  interpersonal  func- 
tions just  discussed.  Like  other  types  of  humor,  teasing  is  paradoxical,  combining  both 
prosocial  and  aggressive  functions.  As  Keltner  and  his  colleagues  (1998)  noted, 
"teasing  criticizes  yet  compliments,  attacks  yet  makes  people  closer,  humiliates  yet 


expresses  affection"  (p.  1231).  According  to  Shapiro,  Baumeister,  and  Kessler  (1991), 
teasing  comprises  three  components:  aggression,  humor,  and  ambiguity.  In  recent 
years,  a  considerable  amount  of  research  attention  has  been  devoted  to  teasing  by 
social  psychologists  as  well  as  sociologists,  anthropologists,  and  linguists  (for  reviews, 
see  Keltner  et  al.,  2001;  Kowalski  et  al.,  2001). 

Social  psychologist  Dacher  Keltner  and  his  colleagues  (2001)  proposed  a  "face 
threat"  analysis  of  teasing,  conceptualizing  it  in  terms  of  Goffman's  (1967)  ideas  about 
the  importance  of  saving  face  in  social  interactions,  particularly  those  interactions  that 
involve  confrontation  or  communication  of  information  that  is  potentially  embar- 
rassing to  the  speaker  or  listener.  They  defined  teasing  as  "an  intentional  provocation 
accompanied  by  playful  off-record  markers  that  together  comment  on  something  rel- 
evant to  the  target"  (p.  234).  In  this  definition,  "provocation"  refers  to  the  fact  that 
teasing  is  a  verbal  or  nonverbal  act  that  is  intended  to  have  some  effect  and  to  elicit 
a  reaction  from  the  target.  Off-record  markers  are  the  verbal  and  nonverbal  cues  (such 
as  smiling,  exaggeration,  or  certain  vocal  inflections)  that  accompany  a  tease  and  indi- 
cate that  it  is  to  be  taken  in  jest,  making  it  a  humorous  as  well  as  an  ambiguous  com- 
munication that  is  delivered  indirectly  rather  than  directly  (P.  Brown  and  Levinson, 
1987).  The  humorous  and  ambiguous  nature  of  teasing  enables  the  source  to  say 
things  that  would  be  face-threatening  and  potentially  unacceptable  if  communicated 
in  a  serious  mode,  since  the  source  can  always  say  "I  was  just  joking"  if  the  commu- 
nication is  not  well  received  by  the  target. 

Teasing  can  be  used  for  a  number  of  different  purposes,  ranging  from  prosocial 
and  friendly  to  hostile  and  malicious.  The  aggressiveness  of  the  tease  depends  on  the 
degree  of  identity  confrontation  and  the  amount  of  ambiguity  and  humor  that  are 
present  (Kowalski  et  al.,  2001).  In  playful,  friendly  teasing,  close  friends  might  say 
things  to  one  another  that,  if  taken  literally,  would  appear  to  be  rather  demeaning  or 
critical.  The  playful  manner  of  the  tease,  however,  communicates  that  the  message  is 
not  intended  to  be  taken  literally  and,  indeed,  the  opposite  meaning  is  intended:  the 
source  actually  means  to  compliment  the  target  in  an  ironic  way.  This  playful  aggres- 
sion is  similar  to  play  fighting  among  children  and  young  animals.  Rather  than  being 
aggressive,  the  unspoken  subtext  in  such  friendly  teasing  is  an  affirmation  of  the 
strength  of  the  relationship  between  the  two  individuals,  calling  attention  to  the  fact 
that  they  are  close  enough  that  they  can  say  negative  things  and  not  take  offense.  The 
laughter  of  both  the  source  and  the  target  signals  that  the  tease  is  not  taken  seriously 
by  either,  and  this  can  help  to  increase  further  the  feelings  of  closeness  (Terrion  and 
Ashforth,  2002). 

This  sort  of  friendly  teasing  is  also  seen  in  "roasts,"  in  which  friends  and  cowork- 
ers  take  turns  humorously  belittling  a  guest  of  honor,  as  well  as  in  humorous  greet- 
ing cards  that  indirectly  convey  feelings  of  affection  and  sentimentality  in  the  guise 
of  an  overtly  insulting  message  (Oring,  1994).  Since  teasing  is  seen  as  inappropriate 
between  people  who  do  not  know  each  other  well,  this  sort  of  friendly  teasing  can 
also  be  a  way  for  individuals  to  signal  a  desire  to  move  an  acquaintanceship  to  a  more 
intimate  level  of  friendship.  Although  these  forms  of  teasing  are  essentially  nonag- 
gressive,  however,  there  is  always  a  potential  for  them  to  backfire  if  the  recipient 


misperceives  the  humorous  intention  or  for  some  reason  takes  the  message  seriously. 
Also,  even  the  most  friendly  teasing  tends  to  elicit  less  positive  feelings  in  the  target 
than  in  the  source  of  the  teasing  (Keltner  et  al.,  1998). 

Practical  jokes  are  another  form  of  humor  closely  related  to  this  sort  of  friendly 
teasing.  Whereas  teasing  involves  saying  things  that  would  normally  be  viewed  as 
somewhat  insulting,  practical  jokes  involve  playing  tricks  on  another  person  that 
would  normally  be  viewed  as  rather  unkind.  Like  teasing,  practical  jokes  can  be  a  way 
of  indirectly  demonstrating  (or  testing)  the  strength  of  a  relationship,  showing  that 
partners  feel  good  enough  about  each  other  that  they  can  put  up  with  these  playful 
inconveniences.  If  the  target  takes  offense,  the  source  can  say  "it  was  all  in  fun,"  and 
back  away  gracefully.  On  the  other  hand,  if  the  target  responds  with  laughter,  this 
affirmation  of  goodwill  and  tolerance  generates  feelings  of  greater  closeness  between 
them.  Since  the  source  of  a  practical  joke  tends  to  enjoy  it  more  and  finds  it  funnier 
than  the  target  does,  the  target  typically  feels  a  need  to  respond  in  kind,  in  order  to 
"even  the  score."  Consequently,  practical  joking  can  become  a  kind  of  tit-for-tat  game, 
in  which  each  person  tries  to  think  up  ever  more  outrageous  tricks  to  play  on  the 
other.  As  long  as  the  participants  continue  to  enjoy  it,  this  game  adds  pleasure  to 
the  friendship.  However,  there  is  always  a  risk  that  practical  joking  might  escalate 
to  the  point  where  it  is  no  longer  enjoyable  to  one  of  the  partners,  potentially 
destabilizing  the  relationship. 

A  somewhat  more  aggressive  form  of  teasing,  which  often  takes  place  between 
close  friends,  romantic  partners,  or  parents  and  children,  involves  its  use  as  a  mild 
form  of  censure,  communicating  disapproval  of  some  aspect  of  the  target's  habits, 
behaviors,  or  preferences  (Keltner  et  al.,  1998).  For  example,  if  a  person  perceives  a 
friend  to  be  overly  demanding  or  rigid,  he  or  she  might  use  teasing  as  a  way  of  drawing 
attention  to  the  excessiveness  of  this  behavior.  This  use  of  humor  allows  both  the 
source  and  the  target  to  save  face,  diminishing  the  risk  of  defensiveness  on  the  part 
of  the  target  and  increasing  the  likelihood  of  compliance.  Thus,  this  form  of  teasing 
involves  the  use  of  humor  as  a  form  of  social  influence.  Studies  have  shown  that  recip- 
ients of  this  sort  of  teasing  usually  respond  in  a  serious  way  to  the  underlying  message, 
explaining  or  justifying  the  targeted  behavior,  rather  than  laughing  along  with  the 
source  (Keltner  et  al.,  1998). 

In  even  more  aggressive  forms  of  teasing,  the  confrontation  becomes  more  direct, 
and  the  humor  and  ambiguity  of  the  message  are  reduced.  In  its  most  aggressive  forms, 
teasing  can  take  the  form  of  bullying  (Whitney  and  Smith,  1993)  and  even  violent 
behavior  (Arriaga,  2002).  Even  at  these  more  aggressive  levels,  though,  the  humor- 
ous nature  of  teasing  allows  the  source  to  disclaim  the  aggressive  intent,  claiming  that 
the  communication  was  intended  as  a  joke,  and  thereby  making  it  difficult  for  the 
target  to  take  offense.  These  aggressive  forms  of  teasing  can  therefore  be  very  coer- 
cive and  manipulative. 

Keltner  and  his  associates  at  the  University  of  California  at  Berkeley  conducted 
two  experiments  to  investigate  hypotheses  derived  from  their  face-threat  analysis  of 
teasing  (Keltner  et  al.,  1998).  In  one  study,  they  asked  high-  and  low-status  members 
of  a  college  fraternity  to  generate  teasing  comments  about  one  another  and  rate  their 

feelings  afterwards.  As  predicted,  low-status  members  teased  in  more  prosocial  ways, 
while  high-status  members  were  more  aggressive.  Overall,  most  teasing  concerned 
negative  rather  than  positive  characteristics,  consistent  with  the  idea  that  teasing  is 
generally  used  to  point  out  flaws  and  norm  violations  in  the  target.  However,  when 
positive  characteristics  did  appear  as  the  topic  of  teasing,  this  was  more  likely  to  occur 
when  low-status  sources  teased  high-status  targets,  rather  than  the  other  way  around. 
Not  surprisingly,  individuals  with  higher  scores  on  a  measure  of  the  personality  trait 
of  agreeableness  tended  to  use  less  aggressive  forms  of  teasing.  The  aggressive  nature 
of  teasing  was  also  seen  in  the  fact  that  targets  reported  and  displayed  more  negative 
emotions  than  did  the  sources.  Furthermore,  low-status  members  showed  more 
embarrassment,  pain,  and  fear  in  their  facial  expressions,  whereas  high-status 
members  showed  more  hostility,  both  when  teasing  and  when  being  teased. 

In  the  second  study,  a  similar  methodology  was  used  with  heterosexual  dating 
couples  who  were  asked  to  generate  teases  about  each  other.  Individuals  who  were 
less  satisfied  with  their  relationship  teased  their  partners  in  more  aggressive  ways.  As 
in  the  previous  study,  teasing  was  more  frequently  about  negative  than  positive  char- 
acteristics of  the  target,  and  targets  of  teasing  displayed  more  negative  emotions  than 
did  sources.  More  prosocial  teasing  produced  more  positive  emotional  responses  in 
both  targets  and  sources.  Although  men  and  women  did  not  differ  in  the  aggressive- 
ness of  their  teasing,  women  experienced  more  negative  and  less  positive  feelings  in 
response  to  being  teased  by  their  male  partners.  Overall,  these  studies  provided 
support  for  the  view  of  teasing  as  a  way  of  expressing  censure  and  dominance  in  a 
face-saving  way. 

How  does  aggressive  teasing  affect  observers  who  are  not  themselves  the  target 
of  the  teasing?  Leslie  Janes  and  James  Olson  (2000),  social  psychologists  at  the  Uni- 
versity of  Western  Ontario,  conducted  two  experiments  in  which  they  examined  the 
inhibiting  effects  of  observing  another  person  being  ridiculed  in  a  humorous  way  (i.e., 
teased),  which  they  referred  to  as  "jeer  pressure."  In  both  experiments,  they  had  uni- 
versity students  watch  videotapes  depicting  a  male  actor  either  ridiculing  another 
person,  or  directing  the  same  humorous  disparaging  remarks  at  himself,  or  using 
nondisparaging  humor.  In  both  studies,  those  who  had  viewed  the  other-disparaging 
videotape,  as  compared  to  those  in  the  other  two  groups,  subsequently  exhibited 
greater  inhibition  in  their  performance  on  several  tasks.  In  particular,  they  showed 
greater  conformity  with  the  views  of  others  in  a  rating  task  and,  on  a  ring-toss  task, 
they  revealed  greater  fear  of  failure  as  demonstrated  by  less  willingness  to  take  risks. 
In  addition,  they  responded  more  quickly  to  rejection-related  words  on  a  lexical  deci- 
sion task,  indicating  activation  of  a  rejection  schema. 

Janes  and  Olson  interpreted  their  findings  as  demonstrating  that  seeing  someone 
else  being  ridiculed  or  aggressively  teased  makes  people  perceive  themselves  to  be  at 
increased  risk  of  rejection  themselves,  and  consequently  they  avoid  behaving  in  ways 
that  might  make  them  stand  out  and  become  a  potential  target  of  teasing  too.  The 
strength  of  these  effects  is  quite  remarkable,  considering  the  fact  that  the  subjects 
were  merely  watching  a  videotape  and  therefore  the  likelihood  of  being  targets  of 
teasing  themselves  was  minimal.  Overall,  this  study  indicates  that  aggressive  teasing 


can  have  a  detrimental  effect  not  only  on  the  targets  of  negative  teasing  but  also  on 
those  who  observe  another  person  being  teased. 


As  noted  in  Chapter  1,  laughter  is  an  expressive  behavior  signaling  the  presence 
of  the  emotion  of  mirth.  The  reason  it  is  so  loud  and  comprises  unique  sounds  and 
facial  expressions  is  because  it  is  a  method  of  communication,  designed  to  capture  the 
attention  of  others,  to  convey  important  emotional  information,  and  to  activate  similar 
emotions  in  others.  Thus,  laughter  is  inherently  social.  Research  indicates  that  people 
are  30  times  more  likely  to  laugh  when  they  are  with  others  than  when  they  are  alone 
(Provine  and  Fischer,  1989).  Laughter  originated  long  before  the  development  of  lan- 
guage as  a  method  of  communication.  Thus,  it  seems  to  be  "a  unique  and  ancient 
mode  of  prelinguistic  auditory  communication  that  is  now  performed  in  parallel  with 
modern  speech  and  language"  (Provine,  1992,  p.  1). 

What  is  the  interpersonal  function  of  laughter?  As  noted  in  Chapter  1 ,  it  appears 
to  have  evolved  in  humans  from  the  rapid,  breathy  panting  vocalization  seen  in  chim- 
panzees and  other  apes  during  rough-and-tumble  social  play,  which  is  accompanied 
by  the  relaxed  open-mouth  display  or  "play  face"  (Preuschoft  and  van  Hooff,  1997; 
van  Hooff  and  Preuschoft,  2003).  A  number  of  theorists  have  therefore  suggested  that 
laughter  is  a  communication  signal  designed  to  indicate  to  others  that  one  is  experi- 
encing the  playful  emotional  state  of  mirth.  In  this  view,  the  meaning  of  laughter  is 
to  convey  the  message  "This  is  play"  (e.g.,  van  Hooff,  1972). 

More  recently,  however,  some  researchers  have  proposed  an  affect-induction  view, 
arguing  that  laughter  not  only  conveys  cognitive  information  to  others  but  it  also 
serves  the  function  of  inducing  and  accentuating  positive  emotions  in  others,  in  order 
to  influence  their  behavior  and  promote  a  more  favorable  attitude  toward  the  one  who 
is  laughing  (e.g.,  Bachorowski  and  Owren,  2003;  Owren  and  Bachorowski,  2003; 
Russell  et  al.,  2003).  These  authors  have  suggested  that  the  peculiar  sounds  of  laugh- 
ter have  a  direct  effect  on  the  listener,  inducing  positive  emotional  arousal  that  mirrors 
the  emotional  state  of  the  laugher,  perhaps  by  activating  certain  brain  circuits  in  the 
listener  (Provine,  1996).  Gervais  and  Wilson  (2005)  suggested  that  these  brain  cir- 
cuits may  be  akin  to  the  mirror  neurons,  or  mirror-matching  systems,  that  have  been 
the  subject  of  a  good  deal  of  recent  research  in  social  neuroscience  and  are  thought 
to  form  an  important  neural  basis  for  human  social  relationships  by  enabling 
individuals  to  experience  and  appreciate  the  actions  and  emotions  of  others 
(Rizzolatti  and  Craighero,  2004).  In  Chapter  6,  I  will  discuss  some  recent  brain- 
imaging  studies  that  investigated  the  regions  of  the  brain  that  are  activated  when  we 
hear  others  laughing. 

The  view  of  laughter  as  a  means  of  inducing  mirth  in  others  helps  to  explain  why 
it  is  so  contagious.  When  we  hear  other  people  laughing  heartily,  it  is  difficult  not  to 
begin  laughing  also.  Presumably,  it  is  the  emotion  of  mirth  that  is  "caught"  in  such 
instances  of  laughter  contagion.  Hearing  others  laugh  induces  this  positive  emotion, 


which  in  turn  causes  us  to  laugh.  Numerous  experiments  have  shown  that  participants 
who  are  exposed  to  humorous  stimuli  (e.g.,  jokes,  cartoons,  or  comedy  films)  in  the 
presence  of  a  laughing  person  or  while  listening  to  recorded  laughter,  in  comparison 
to  those  in  no-laughter  control  conditions,  are  more  likely  to  laugh  themselves  and 
tend  to  rate  the  stimuli  as  being  more  funny  (G.  E.  Brown,  D.  Brown,  and  Ramos, 
1981;  Donoghue,  McCarrey,  and  Clement,  1983;  Fuller  and  Sheehy-Skeffington, 
1974;  G.  N.  Martin  and  Gray,  1996;  Porterfield  et  al.,  1988).  These  findings  account 
for  the  widespread  use  of  recorded  laughter  sound  tracks  accompanying  television 
comedy  programs,  which  presumably  enhance  audience  enjoyment  and  perceptions 
of  funniness.  Other  experiments  have  shown  that  the  larger  the  audience,  the  more 
likely  they  will  be  to  laugh  at  a  comedy  performance,  as  long  as  they  are  not  overly 
crowded  into  a  small  space  (Prerost,  1977). 

A  study  by  Robert  Provine  (1992),  using  a  "laughter  box,"  showed  that  the  sound 
of  laughter  alone,  without  any  other  humorous  stimuli  being  present,  is  enough  to 
trigger  laughter  in  most  listeners.  However,  repeated  exposure  to  the  same  laughter 
recording  quickly  becomes  aversive  and  no  longer  elicits  laughter  after  a  few  repeti- 
tions. In  a  similar  vein,  Jo-Anne  Bachorowski  and  her  colleagues  found  that  laughter 
containing  variable  acoustic  properties  is  rated  as  more  enjoyable  by  listeners  than 
laughter  that  is  more  repetitious  (Bachorowski,  Smoski,  and  Owren,  2001). 

Early  research  on  social  aspects  of  laughter  consisting  primarily  of  laboratory 
studies  examined  the  effects  of  listening  to  rather  artificial  recorded  laughter  on 
people's  enjoyment  of  jokes,  cartoons,  and  comedy  films.  More  recently,  however, 
investigators  have  gone  out  of  the  laboratory  and  begun  to  study  spontaneous  laugh- 
ter occurring  in  the  context  of  more  naturalistic  social  interactions.  In  a  study  reported 
by  Robert  Provine  (1993),  at  the  University  of  Maryland,  small  groups  of  people  inter- 
acting in  public  places  were  surreptitiously  observed,  and  each  time  someone  laughed, 
the  dialogue  immediately  preceding  the  laughter  was  written  down.  In  a  sample  of 
1200  such  episodes,  laughter  was  found  to  occur  almost  exclusively  at  the  end  of  com- 
pleted sentences  rather  than  in  the  middle,  suggesting  that  "laughter  punctuates 
speech"  (see  Nwokah,  Hsu,  Davies,  and  Fogel,  1999,  however,  for  evidence  of  laugh- 
ter co-occurring  with  speech  in  mother-infant  interactions).  Provine  also  found  that 
people  were  significantly  more  likely  to  laugh  after  something  they  themselves  said 
than  after  something  said  by  another  person,  and  that  women  tended  to  laugh  more 
frequently  than  men. 

Interestingly,  Provine  noted  that  in  these  naturalistic  conversations  most  of  the 
laughter  did  not  occur  in  response  to  joke-telling  or  other  obvious  structured  attempts 
at  humor.  Instead,  it  frequently  followed  seemingly  mundane  statements  and  ques- 
tions (e.g.,  "It  was  nice  meeting  you  too,"  or  "What  is  that  supposed  to  mean?"). 
Provine  therefore  argued  that  much  of  our  everyday  laughter  actually  has  little  to  do 
with  humor  per  se,  but  instead  is  a  social  signal  of  friendliness  and  positive  emotion 
generally.  It  is  not  clear  from  this  research,  however,  whether  the  subjects  were  actu- 
ally perceiving  these  utterances  as  being  funny  (i.e.,  containing  some  sort  of  non- 
serious  incongruities)  and  therefore  experiencing  genuine  mirth,  or  whether  their 
laughter  was  simply  a  friendly  social  signal  as  Provine  argued  (Gervais  and  Wilson, 


2005).  Since  Provine  only  recorded  the  last  sentence  spoken  before  each  episode  of 
laughter,  we  do  not  have  enough  information  to  know  whether  the  larger  conversa- 
tional context  may  have  made  these  statements  funny,  just  as  we  would  not  perceive 
the  humor  if  we  simply  heard  a  series  of  joke  punch  lines  without  the  setups.  This  is 
a  question  that  merits  further  investigation. 

In  another  study  of  laughter  in  social  interaction,  Julia  Vettin  and  Dietmar  Todt 
(2004),  at  the  Free  University  of  Berlin,  tape-recorded  48  hours  of  conversations 
among  dyads  of  friends  and  strangers  in  naturalistic  settings.  They  found  an  average 
of  5.8  bouts  of  laughter  occurring  in  each  10-minute  period  of  conversation,  with  a 
range  of  0  to  15  bouts.  A  laughter  bout  was  defined  as  the  series  of  "ha-ha-ha"  sounds 
emitted  during  a  single  exhalation.  These  rates  appear  to  be  much  higher  than  the 
frequencies  that  have  been  reported  in  self-report  daily  diary  studies  of  laughter 
(Mannell  and  McMahon,  1982;  R.  A.  Martin  and  Kuiper,  1999).  This  suggests  that, 
when  completing  such  records,  people  tend  to  underestimate  how  frequently  they 
laugh  and  may  not  even  notice  some  of  the  times  when  they  are  laughing.  Interest- 
ingly, this  study  found  that,  on  average,  participants  laughed  just  as  frequently  with 
strangers  as  they  did  with  close  friends. 

As  in  Provine's  (1993)  investigations,  individuals  in  Vettin  and  Todt's  study 
laughed  more  frequently  following  their  own  utterances  than  following  an  utterance 
of  their  conversational  partner.  Also  similar  to  Provine's  findings,  speakers  generally 
did  not  laugh  in  the  middle  of  a  sentence.  However,  unlike  Provine,  this  study  found 
that  listeners  often  laughed  while  their  conversational  partners  were  still  speaking. 
Acoustical  analyses  of  the  laughter  revealed  a  great  deal  of  variability,  both  within  and 
between  individuals  (cf.  Bachorowski  et  al.,  2001).  In  addition,  it  was  found  that  some 
of  the  acoustical  parameters  of  laughter  varied  systematically  according  to  the  context 
and  whether  the  laughter  was  produced  by  the  speaker  or  the  listener.  These  findings 
further  highlight  the  conversational  nature  of  laughter,  indicating  that  it  is  a  nonver- 
bal method  of  communication. 

To  study  listeners'  affective  responses  to  different  types  of  laughter,  Jo-Anne 
Bachorowski  and  Michael  Owren  (2001),  at  Vanderbilt  University,  conducted  five 
experiments  in  which  they  asked  male  and  female  participants  to  complete  a  number 
of  ratings  after  listening  to  recordings  of  different  types  of  laughs  produced  by  men 
and  women.  These  included  voiced,  harmonically  rich  songlike  laughs,  and  unvoiced 
gruntlike,  snortlike,  and  cacklelike  laughs.  In  each  of  the  studies,  the  voiced  songlike 
laughs  elicited  more  positive  evaluations  than  did  any  of  the  unvoiced  laughs.  This 
occurred  regardless  of  whether  listeners  rated  their  own  emotional  responses,  the 
likely  responses  of  others,  or  perceived  attributes  of  the  laughers  (e.g.,  friendliness, 
sexiness,  or  listener's  interest  in  meeting  the  laugher).  Based  on  these  findings, 
the  authors  suggested  that  the  acoustic  variability  in  laughter  is  important  for  its 
affect-induction  function,  eliciting  a  range  of  different  emotional  responses  in 

A  subsequent  study  by  Moria  Smoski  and  Jo-Anne  Bachorowski  (2003)  also  exam- 
ined the  role  of  laughter  in  social  interaction.  They  proposed  that  "antiphonal"  laugh- 
ter (i.e.,  laughter  that  occurs  during  or  immediately  after  a  social  partner's  laugh)  is 
part  of  an  affect-induction  process  that  promotes  affiliative,  cooperative  behavior 


between  social  partners.  They  hypothesized  that  antiphonal  laughter  should  therefore 
increase  in  frequency  as  friendships  develop  between  people.  To  test  this  hypothesis, 
they  audiotaped  same-sex  and  mixed-sex  friend  and  stranger  dyads  while  they  played 
brief  games  designed  to  facilitate  laugh  production.  As  predicted,  significantly  more 
antiphonal  laughter  (controlling  for  overall  laughter  rates)  occurred  in  friend  dyads 
than  in  stranger  dyads.  In  addition,  in  mixed-sex  dyads,  females  were  more  likely  to 
laugh  antiphonally  than  were  males,  suggesting  that  females  may  be  particularly 
attuned  to  positive  affective  expressions  by  males. 

Taken  together,  these  studies  provide  considerable  support  for  the  view  that 
laughter  is  a  form  of  social  communication  that  is  used  to  express  positive  emotions 
and  also  to  elicit  positive  emotional  responses  in  others.  As  such,  it  seems  to  have  an 
important  social  facilitation  and  bonding  function,  promoting  and  helping  to  syn- 
chronize and  coordinate  social  interactions  by  coupling  the  emotions  of  group 
members  (Gervais  and  Wilson,  2005;  Provine,  1992). 


How  do  we  gather  information  and  form  impressions  of  other  people?  What 
factors  cause  us  to  be  attracted  to  some  people  and  to  dislike  others?  How  do  these 
processes  of  social  perception  and  attraction  influence  our  decisions  in  selecting  a 
mate  or  forming  a  close  friendship  with  someone?  These  types  of  questions  have  long 
been  of  particular  interest  to  social  psychologists.  In  the  following  sections,  I  will 
explore  some  of  the  ways  humor  may  play  an  important  role  in  all  these  processes. 

Social  Perception 

When  we  meet  other  people  for  the  first  time,  we  tend  to  quickly  form 
impressions  and  make  judgments  about  their  personality  characteristics  such  as  their 
friendliness,  trustworthiness,  motives,  and  so  on  (E.  E.  Jones,  1990).  Indeed,  the 
ability  to  form  relatively  accurate  impressions  of  others  rapidly  and  efficiently  may 
have  been  important  for  survival  in  our  evolutionary  history.  One  source  of  infor- 
mation that  contributes  to  our  initial  impressions  of  others  is  the  way  they  express 
humor.  As  we  have  seen,  humor  is  a  form  of  interpersonal  communication,  and  a 
good  sense  of  humor  is  therefore  an  important  social  skill  that  we  typically  admire  in 

Although  a  sense  of  humor  is  generally  viewed  as  a  positive  characteristic  in  other 
people,  the  way  another  person's  humor  influences  our  impressions  may  depend  in 
part  on  our  previous  expectations  about  that  person.  In  an  early  study  of  the  role  of 
humor  in  person  perception,  undergraduate  participants  were  asked  to  evaluate  a  pro- 
fessor after  watching  a  videotaped  lecture  (Mettee,  Hrelec,  and  Wilkens,  197 1).  Before 
the  lecture,  the  participants  were  given  a  summary  of  the  professor's  personality  char- 
acteristics; half  of  the  subjects  were  told  that  he  was  an  aloof,  humorless  person,  and 
half  were  told  that  he  was  somewhat  "clownish"  and  given  to  being  indiscreet  in  his 
use  of  humor.  The  participants  all  watched  videotapes  of  the  same  professor  giving 


the  same  lecture,  except  that  for  some  subjects  he  told  a  joke  at  one  point  in  the 
lecture,  whereas  for  others  he  did  not.  Analyses  of  the  participants'  ratings  indicated 
that,  in  the  joke  condition,  those  who  had  been  led  to  expect  an  aloof  and  humorless 
lecturer  found  the  joke  funnier  and  rated  the  lecturer  as  more  competent,  as  com- 
pared to  those  who  were  told  that  he  was  "clownish"  and  given  to  silly  humor. 
However,  regardless  of  whether  they  had  been  told  he  was  aloof  or  clownish,  subjects 
rated  the  lecturer  as  more  likable  when  he  told  a  joke  than  when  he  did  not. 

Our  perceptions  of  other  people  may  also  be  influenced  by  the  type  of  humor 
they  use,  the  responses  of  others  to  their  humor,  and  the  social  context  in  which  they 
express  it.  Peter  Derks  and  Jack  Berkowitz  (1989)  randomly  assigned  almost  800  male 
and  female  undergraduates  to  various  conditions  in  which  they  read  alternate  versions 
of  a  story  in  which  a  male  (or  female)  tells  a  cute  (or  dirty)  joke  to  a  group  of  friends 
(or  strangers)  at  a  party  (or  at  work),  and  everyone  (or  no  one)  laughs.  The  partici- 
pants were  then  asked  to  rate  their  impressions  of  the  joke-teller  on  a  number  of 
dimensions.  The  joke-teller  who  told  a  "dirty,"  as  compared  to  a  "cute"  joke,  was  rated 
as  significantly  less  sincere,  less  friendly,  less  intelligent,  more  thoughtless,  and  more 
obnoxious.  Dirty  jokes  were  viewed  particularly  negatively  if  they  were  told  to 
strangers  rather  than  friends,  and  by  males  rather  than  by  females.  Thus,  telling 
"dirty"  jokes  does  not  appear  to  be  a  very  good  way  of  making  a  positive  first  impres- 
sion on  others. 

Regardless  of  which  type  of  joke  was  told,  if  the  audience  laughed  at  it,  the  joke- 
teller  was  perceived  as  more  attractive,  but  also  as  less  sincere,  than  if  the  audience 
did  not  laugh.  Males  found  joke-tellers  to  be  particularly  attractive  if  they  made  people 
laugh  at  work,  whereas  females  rated  most  attractive  those  who  made  people  laugh  at 
a  party.  Overall,  those  who  told  jokes  at  work  were  rated  as  more  friendly  than  were 
those  who  told  jokes  at  a  party.  This  latter  finding  may  be  explained  by  attribution 
theory  (H.  H.  Kelley,  1972),  which  suggests  that  we  attribute  the  causes  of  behavior 
to  internal  personality  traits  when  it  occurs  in  situations  where  it  is  not  normally 
expected,  and  to  external  causes  when  it  occurs  in  situations  where  the  behavior  is 
more  expected.  Since  people  typically  tell  jokes  at  parties  more  frequently  than  at 
work,  telling  a  joke  at  work  is  more  likely  to  elicit  attributions  that  the  behavior  is 
due  to  internal  traits  such  as  friendliness. 

A  later  study  by  Derks  and  his  colleagues  replicated  and  extended  these  findings 
(Derks,  Kalland,  and  Etgen,  1995).  One  finding  in  the  later  study  was  that  the  failure 
of  an  audience  to  laugh  at  a  joke  led  to  perceptions  of  the  joke-teller  as  being  more 
aggressive  and  less  affiliative  as  compared  to  situations  where  the  audience  laughed  at 
the  joke.  Overall,  then,  the  effect  of  humor  on  impression  formation  depends  on  a 
variety  of  factors,  including  the  type  of  humor,  the  social  context,  and  the  degree  to 
which  other  people  find  the  person  amusing. 

Interpersonal  Attraction 

In  general,  we  tend  to  be  attracted  to  people  who  display  a  sense  of  humor.  In 
the  cost-benefit  analyses  underlying  interpersonal  attraction  (K.  S.  Cook  and  Rice, 


2003),  a  sense  of  humor  in  another  person  increases  the  perceived  benefits  of  a  rela- 
tionship (the  pleasant  feelings  associated  with  laughter)  and  decreases  the  perceived 
costs  (there  is  less  likelihood  that  the  person  will  become  easily  offended  or  burden 
us  with  negative  emotional  reactions).  An  experiment  by  Barbara  Fraley  and  Arthur 
Aron  (2004)  examined  the  degree  to  which  a  shared  humorous  experience  during  a 
first  encounter  between  strangers  leads  to  greater  feelings  of  closeness.  In  this  study, 
same-sex  stranger  pairs  participated  together  in  a  series  of  tasks  that  were  designed 
either  to  generate  a  great  deal  of  humor  or  to  be  enjoyable  but  not  humorous.  After 
completing  these  tasks,  they  were  each  asked  to  rate  their  perceptions  of  their  partner 
and  their  feelings  on  a  number  of  scales,  including  how  close  they  felt  to  the  other 

The  participants  in  the  humorous  task  condition  laughed  much  more  frequently 
and  rated  the  activity  as  being  significantly  more  humorous  than  did  those  in  the  non- 
humorous  condition,  indicating  that  the  manipulation  of  humor  was  successful.  At  the 
same  time,  the  two  conditions  were  rated  as  being  equally  enjoyable.  As  predicted, 
the  participants  in  the  humorous  condition  reported  feeling  much  closer  and  more 
attracted  to  each  other  afterwards,  as  compared  to  those  in  the  nonhumorous  condi- 
tion. Further  analyses  revealed  that  this  effect  was  due  to  differences  in  the  perceived 
funniness  and  not  merely  the  enjoyableness  of  the  conditions. 

The  authors  also  tested  several  hypotheses  concerning  possible  mediators  and 
moderators  of  the  observed  effects  of  shared  humor.  They  found  that  the  effect  of 
humor  on  perceived  closeness  was  mediated  in  part  by  perceptions  of  "self-expansion" 
(feeling  that  one  has  gained  a  new  perspective  on  things  and  a  greater  sense  of 
awareness  as  a  result  of  the  interaction),  as  well  as  by  distraction  from  the  initial 
discomfort  associated  with  interacting  with  a  stranger,  but  not  by  perceptions  of  self- 
disclosure  or  greater  acceptance  by  the  partner.  Furthermore,  the  effect  of  humor  on 
closeness  was  stronger  for  participants  with  a  greater  sense  of  humor  and  for  those 
with  a  more  anxious  attachment  style.  In  summary,  sharing  humor  in  an  initial 
encounter  between  strangers  appears  to  enhance  feelings  of  closeness  and  mutual 
attraction  by  expanding  each  person's  sense  of  self  and  by  reducing  their  feelings  of 
discomfort  and  anxiety,  particularly  among  people  who  generally  have  a  good 
sense  of  humor  as  well  as  those  who  usually  tend  to  feel  anxious  about  their  close 

While  we  tend  to  be  attracted  to  people  with  whom  we  have  a  humorous  inter- 
action in  our  first  encounter,  we  may  be  particularly  attracted  to  those  who  laugh  at 
our  jokes,  since  this  indicates  that  they  share  our  sense  of  humor.  In  an  experiment 
by  Arnie  Cann  and  his  colleagues,  participants  were  instructed  to  tell  a  joke  to  a  same- 
sex  stranger  who  was  actually  a  confederate  of  the  experimenter  (Cann,  Calhoun,  and 
Banks,  1997).  For  half  of  the  subjects,  the  stranger  laughed  at  the  joke,  and  for  the 
other  half  he  or  she  did  not.  Half  of  the  participants  were  also  given  information  indi- 
cating that  the  stranger  held  attitudes  and  beliefs  about  social  issues  that  were  very 
similar  to  their  own,  whereas  the  other  half  were  led  to  believe  that  the  stranger  held 
dissimilar  views.  The  participants  subsequently  rated  their  perceptions  of  the  stranger 
and  their  feelings  of  attraction  to  him  or  her. 


As  predicted,  the  results  indicated  that  both  greater  similarity  in  attitudes  and  the 
stranger's  laughter  in  response  to  the  joke  led  to  more  positive  perceptions  and  greater 
attraction  to  the  stranger.  Interestingly,  the  effect  of  laughter  on  the  part  of  the 
stranger  was  even  powerful  enough  to  overcome  the  well-established  negative  effect 
of  attitude  dissimilarity  on  attraction.  A  stranger  with  dissimilar  social  attitudes  who 
laughed  in  response  to  the  participant's  joke  was  perceived  more  positively  than  was 
a  stranger  with  similar  attitudes  who  did  not  laugh.  The  authors  suggested  that  laugh- 
ter from  the  stranger  indicates  that  this  person  has  a  sense  of  humor,  and,  moreover, 
that  he  or  she  shares  the  subject's  style  of  humor,  both  of  which  contribute  to  posi- 
tive attraction.  These  humor  perceptions  seem  to  be  even  more  important  than  the 
well-established  effect  on  attraction  of  sharing  similar  attitudes  and  beliefs.  Viewed  in 
another  way,  these  findings  suggest  that  laughing  at  the  funny  things  another  person 
says  is  a  way  not  only  of  expressing  feelings  of  attraction  but  also  of  enhancing  one's 
own  attractiveness  to  the  other  person  (Grammer,  1990). 

Humor  as  a  Desirable  Trait  in  Friendship  and  Mate  Selection 

As  noted  in  Chapter  1,  over  the  past  century  a  sense  of  humor  has  become  a  highly 
prized  personality  characteristic,  but  it  is  also  rather  vaguely  defined  in  most  people's 
minds.  In  much  the  same  way  as  physical  attractiveness  is  highly  valued  and  is  per- 
ceived to  be  associated  with  many  desirable  traits  (Eagly,  Ashmore,  Makhijani,  and 
Longo,  1991),  we  tend  to  hold  positive  stereotypes  about  individuals  whom  we  per- 
ceive to  have  a  sense  of  humor.  Studies  have  shown  that  people  tend  to  assume  that 
individuals  with  a  strong  sense  of  humor  are  also  characterized  by  a  number  of  other 
desirable  traits,  such  as  being  friendly,  extraverted,  considerate,  pleasant,  interesting, 
imaginative,  intelligent,  perceptive,  and  emotionally  stable  (Cann  and  Calhoun,  2001). 
Due  to  this  positive  stereotype,  we  often  use  other  people's  sense  of  humor  as  a  guide 
in  choosing  our  friends  and  romantic  partners.  Sprecher  and  Regan  (2002)  surveyed 
700  men  and  women  about  their  preferences  for  a  number  of  attributes  in  either  a 
casual  sex  partner,  dating  partner,  marriage  partner,  same-sex  friend,  or  opposite-sex 
friend.  Across  all  these  relationship  types,  a  good  sense  of  humor  was  one  of  the  most 
highly  rated  characteristics,  along  with  warmth  and  openness.  Similar  findings  have 
been  obtained  in  a  number  of  other  studies  (Goodwin,  1990;  Goodwin  and  Tang, 
1991;  Kenrick,  Sadalla,  Groth,  and  Trost,  1990). 

Analyses  of  the  kinds  of  characteristics  sought  in  potential  romantic  partners  in 
personal  ads  placed  in  newspapers  and  singles  magazines  have  found  that  women  par- 
ticularly look  for  a  sense  of  humor  in  male  partners,  whereas  men,  although  they  still 
place  a  high  value  on  a  sense  of  humor  in  a  woman,  rate  physical  attractiveness  as 
somewhat  more  important  (Provine,  2000;  J.  E.  Smith,  Waldorf,  and  Trembath,  1990). 
A  similar  pattern  of  sex  differences  has  been  found  in  some  survey  studies  (e.g.,  Daniel, 
O'Brien,  McCabe,  and  Quinter,  1985).  A  meta-analysis  of  the  research  on  mate  selec- 
tion preferences  concluded  that  there  is  a  significant  but  relatively  small  tendency  for 
women  to  place  greater  weight  than  men  on  the  importance  of  a  sense  of  humor  in 
a  potential  partner  (Feingold,  1992). 


An  experiment  by  Duane  Lundy  and  his  colleagues  examined  the  effects  of  self- 
deprecating  humor  and  physical  attractiveness  on  observers'  desire  for  future  inter- 
action in  various  types  of  heterosexual  relationships  (Lundy,  Tan,  and  Cunningham, 
1998).  Male  and  female  college  students  were  shown  a  photograph  and  a  transcript 
of  an  interview  with  a  person  of  the  opposite  sex  (the  target  person).  The  participants 
were  randomly  assigned  to  conditions  in  which  the  photograph  depicted  either  an 
attractive  or  unattractive  person,  and  the  transcript  either  did  or  did  not  contain  a 
self-deprecating  humorous  comment  supposedly  made  by  the  target.  The  participants 
were  asked  to  rate  the  target  in  terms  of  mate  qualities  by  indicating  the  degree  to 
which  they  would  be  interested  in  several  types  of  relationships  with  him  or  her, 
including  dating,  sexual  intercourse,  long-term  relationship,  marriage,  and  marriage 
with  children. 

As  in  previous  research,  men  rated  the  more  physically  attractive  female  target  as 
a  more  desirable  partner  for  almost  all  types  of  relationships.  Men's  ratings  of  desir- 
ability were  not  affected  by  the  presence  or  absence  of  humor  in  the  transcript.  In 
contrast,  for  women,  physical  attractiveness  of  the  male  target  did  not  directly  influ- 
ence their  ratings  of  desirability.  Instead,  for  female  participants,  there  was  an  inter- 
action between  the  physical  attractiveness  of  the  target  and  whether  or  not  he 
expressed  humor.  In  particular,  humor  increased  the  perceived  desirability  if  the  target 
was  physically  attractive,  but  it  had  no  effect  if  he  was  unattractive.  This  pattern  held 
for  ratings  of  desirability  for  both  short-  and  long-term  relationships.  These  results 
suggest  that  self-deprecating  humor  may  increase  romantic  attraction  of  women 
toward  men,  but  only  when  other  variables  (such  as  physical  attractiveness)  are  favor- 
able. Further  analyses  of  the  rating  data  indicated  that  women  viewed  the  humorous, 
physically  attractive  male  as  being  more  caring  than  the  nonhumorous,  physically 
attractive  male. 

Contrary  to  previous  research  evidence  that  humor  is  perceived  as  an  indicator 
of  intelligence  (Cann  and  Calhoun,  2001),  both  male  and  female  participants  tended 
to  view  the  humorous  target  as  being  slightly  less  intelligent  than  the  nonhumorous 
one.  However,  the  results  of  this  study  may  have  been  influenced  by  the  self- 
deprecating  nature  of  the  humor  displayed  by  the  target  and  not  to  humor  in  general. 
In  particular,  the  humor  in  this  experiment  may  not  have  been  sufficient  or  of  the 
right  type  to  evoke  perceptions  that  the  target  had  a  "sense  of  humor,"  along  with  all 
the  positive  qualities  that  are  associated  with  this  stereotype.  Additional  research  is 
needed  to  determine  whether  these  findings  can  be  replicated  using  different  degrees 
or  types  of  humor.  Some  other  research  suggests  that,  for  women,  having  a  good 
sense  of  humor  (as  well  as  being  emotionally  stable)  can  make  up  for  being  relatively 
less  physically  attractive  in  determining  the  degree  to  which  they  are  seen  by  males 
as  attractive  romantic  partners  (Feingold,  1981).  I  will  review  some  additional 
research  along  these  lines  in  my  discussion  of  evolutionary  theories  of  humor  in 
Chapter  6. 

Overall,  the  research  on  humor,  social  perception,  and  attraction  indicates  that 
we  tend  to  have  positive  attitudes  toward  people  who  demonstrate  a  sense  of  humor. 
People  with  a  sense  of  humor  are  generally  assumed  also  to  have  a  number  of  other 

16  5     •     THE    SOCIAL    PSYCHOLOGY    OF    HUMOR 

positive  characteristics,  and  this  trait  is  highly  desirable  in  the  selection  of  a  friend  or 
romantic  partner.  As  we  saw  earlier,  research  indicates  that  the  sound  of  laughter  in 
others  induces  positive  feelings  in  the  listener  (Bachorowski  and  Owren,  2001).  The 
positive  emotion  elicited  by  shared  laughter  with  someone  who  has  a  sense  of  humor 
may  serve  to  reinforce  mutual  feelings  of  attraction,  strengthening  positive  attitudes, 
instilling  a  sense  of  trust  and  loyalty,  and  promoting  the  development  of  close  rela- 
tionships (Smoski  and  Bachorowski,  2003). 


Is  a  humorous  message  more  persuasive  than  a  serious  one?  The  widespread  use 
of  humor  in  television  and  radio  advertisements  suggests  that  advertisers  view  humor 
as  a  useful  tool  in  persuading  people  to  buy  their  products.  Also,  politicians  frequently 
sprinkle  humor  in  their  campaign  speeches,  presumably  because  they  believe  this  will 
help  in  persuading  people  to  vote  for  them.  Surprisingly,  however,  there  is  little 
research  evidence  that  humorous  messages  are  more  persuasive,  overall,  than  are  non- 
humorous  ones.  A  review  of  the  relevant  research  (Weinberger  and  Gulas,  1992) 
found  five  studies  on  humor  in  advertising  that  indicated  a  positive  effect  on  persua- 
sion, eight  studies  that  indicated  only  mixed  or  no  effect,  and  one  that  even  found 
humorous  advertisements  to  be  less  persuasive  than  serious  ones. 

In  research  on  humor  and  persuasion  outside  of  advertising  (e.g.,  persuasive 
speeches  or  essays),  none  of  the  studies  demonstrated  an  overall  superiority  of  humor- 
ous over  nonhumorous  messages,  seven  studies  found  neutral  or  mixed  results,  and 
one  study  found  a  negative  effect  of  humor  on  persuasiveness  (Weinberger  and  Gulas, 
1992).  Thus,  simply  making  a  message  humorous  does  not  necessarily  make  it  more 
persuasive.  This  conclusion  is  perhaps  less  surprising  than  it  may  initially  seem:  if 
humorous  messages  were  always  more  persuasive,  advertisers  and  politicians  would 
likely  have  figured  that  out  by  now,  and  we  would  see  nothing  but  humorous  adver- 
tisements on  television  and  politicians  constantly  cracking  jokes  throughout  their 
campaign  speeches! 

The  wide  variation  in  research  findings  suggests  that  the  role  of  humor  in  per- 
suasion is  more  complex,  with  certain  types  of  humor  contributing  to  persuasiveness 
in  some  circumstances  but  not  in  others.  For  example,  one  study  found  that  humor- 
ous advertisements  were  more  effective  than  nonhumorous  ones  with  viewers  who 
already  had  a  positive  attitude  toward  the  product,  whereas  humor  was  less  effective 
with  those  who  had  pre-existing  negative  brand  attitudes  (Chattopadhyay  and  Basu, 
1990).  Another  study  found  that  the  addition  of  humor  to  a  low-intensity,  soft- 
sell  advertising  approach  increased  the  level  of  persuasion,  whereas  the  addition  of 
humor  to  a  hard-sell  approach  actually  decreased  persuasiveness  (Markiewicz,  1974). 
Weinberger  and  Gulas  (1992)  suggested  that  the  effectiveness  of  humor  in  advertis- 
ing depends  on  the  objectives  one  seeks  to  achieve,  the  target  audience,  the  product 
being  advertised,  and  the  type  of  humor  used. 


The  complex  role  of  humor  in  persuasion  may  be  better  understood  if  we 
consider  the  factors  that  have  been  found  to  be  relevant  to  persuasion  in  general. 
Contemporary  research  suggests  that  the  persuasiveness  of  a  message  depends  not 
only  on  the  message  itself  but  also  on  characteristics  of  the  audience,  such  as  atten- 
tion, distraction,  involvement,  motivation,  self-esteem,  and  intelligence.  According  to 
the  Elaboration  Likelihood  Model  developed  by  Richard  Petty  and  John  Cacioppo 
(1986),  persuasion  can  be  achieved  by  means  of  two  potential  routes:  a  central  pro- 
cessing route  and  a  peripheral  processing  route.  The  central  route,  which  involves 
active  elaboration  of  the  message  by  the  listener,  occurs  when  the  listener  finds  the 
message  personally  relevant  and  has  pre-existing  ideas  and  beliefs  about  the  issue.  In 
this  route,  listeners  will  become  convinced  of  an  argument  if  they  find  it  logically 
compelling.  In  contrast,  the  peripheral  route  involves  less  well-thought-out  responses 
based  on  "heuristic"  cues  such  as  moods  and  emotions,  familiar  phrases,  or  the  attrib- 
utes of  the  message  source  (e.g.,  level  of  expertise,  likeability,  or  perceived  lack  of 
self-interested  motives).  This  route  occurs  when  the  listener  is  less  highly  invested 
or  motivated,  is  not  able  to  understand  the  message,  or  does  not  like  to  deal  with 
complex  information,  and  it  generally  leads  to  less  stable  changes  in  attitudes  and 

Research  suggests  that  the  effects  of  humor  on  persuasion  may  have  more  to  do 
with  the  peripheral  than  the  central  processing  route.  In  particular,  humor  seems  to 
be  more  effective  in  influencing  emotional  variables,  such  as  liking  and  positive  mood, 
than  cognitive  ones,  such  as  comprehension  of  the  message  (Calvin  P.  Duncan  and 
Nelson,  1985).  There  is  little  evidence  that  humor  increases  the  perceived  credibility 
of  the  source  of  a  message,  or  that  it  improves  comprehension  of  the  message  (Wein- 
berger and  Gulas,  1992).  However,  there  is  considerable  evidence  that  humor  has 
emotional  effects  on  the  audience,  tending  to  put  them  into  a  more  positive  mood 
(C.  C.  Moran,  1996).  Studies  also  indicate  that  humor  enhances  the  listener's  liking 
of  the  source  and  the  product  being  advertised  (Weinberger  and  Gulas,  1992).  Humor 
also  has  an  attention-grabbing  effect,  causing  people  to  attend  to  the  humorous 
aspects  of  the  message  (Madden  and  Weinberger,  1982),  and  distracting  them  from 
weaknesses  in  the  logical  argument  (J.  A.  Jones,  2005).  Taken  together,  these  findings 
suggest  that  humor  has  more  of  an  emotional  than  a  cognitive  effect,  and  that  it  may 
play  a  greater  role  in  the  peripheral  processing  route  than  in  the  central  processing 
route  to  persuasion. 

Jim  Lyttle  (2001)  suggested  that  humor  may  influence  the  peripheral  processing 
route  in  several  ways.  First,  by  creating  a  positive  mood  in  the  audience,  it  might  make 
them  less  likely  to  disagree  with  a  persuasive  message.  Second,  by  increasing  liking 
for  the  source,  humor  might  implicitly  convey  a  sense  of  shared  values  and  thereby 
make  the  source  appear  more  credible.  Third,  by  distracting  the  attention  of  the  audi- 
ence, humor  might  prevent  them  from  constructing  counter-arguments  against  the 
message.  Finally,  self-disparaging  or  self-effacing  humor  might  convey  the  impression 
that  the  source  has  less  personal  investment  in  the  outcome  and  this  might  increase 
audience  perceptions  of  trustworthiness  of  the  source. 

8  5     •     THE    SOCIAL    PSYCHOLOGY    OF    HUMOR 

An  experiment  by  Diane  Mackie  and  Leila  Worth  (1989)  examined  the  role  of 
humor-induced  positive  mood  on  the  persuasiveness  of  a  message.  Participants  were 
either  put  in  a  good  mood  by  having  them  watch  a  humorous  videotape  (a  comedy 
segment  from  Saturday  Night  Live)  or  they  were  put  in  a  neutral  mood  by  having  them 
watch  a  documentary  film  about  wine.  They  were  then  exposed  to  a  persuasive 
message  about  gun  control  (advocating  a  position  contrary  to  their  original  views)  that 
contained  either  strong  or  weak  arguments,  and  that  was  delivered  by  either  an  expert 
or  a  nonexpert  source.  The  participants'  subsequent  ratings  of  their  attitudes  toward 
gun  control  revealed  that  those  who  had  been  exposed  to  the  humorous  videotape 
were  equally  likely  to  change  their  attitudes  following  the  weak  and  strong  arguments, 
but  were  more  strongly  influenced  by  the  expert  source  than  by  the  nonexpert  source. 
This  pattern  of  results  indicates  that  they  were  engaging  in  peripheral  rather  than 
central  processing  of  the  information,  relying  on  heuristic  cues  instead  of  the  strength 
of  the  argument  to  make  a  decision.  In  contrast,  those  who  had  watched  the  nonhu- 
morous  videotape  were  more  strongly  influenced  by  the  strong  than  the  weak  argu- 
ments, whereas  they  were  equally  persuaded  by  the  expert  and  nonexpert  sources. 
Thus,  they  were  engaging  in  central  processing,  focusing  on  the  strength  of  the  argu- 
ments rather  than  heuristic  cues  such  as  the  credibility  of  the  source. 

Similar  findings  were  obtained  in  another  experiment  in  which  positive  moods 
were  induced  in  participants  by  having  them  win  a  small  prize  in  a  lottery,  indicating 
that  the  pattern  of  the  humor-related  persuasion  effects  was  due  to  the  induction  of 
positive  emotion  rather  than  the  more  cognitive  aspects  of  humor.  Thus,  humor  may 
influence  the  persuasiveness  of  a  message  by  inducing  positive  moods  in  listeners, 
causing  them  to  attend  to  peripheral,  heuristic  cues  rather  than  to  the  strength  of  the 
argument  via  central  processing  (see  also  Wegener,  Petty,  and  Smith,  1995,  regard- 
ing the  complicated  relationship  between  positive  moods  and  information  process- 
ing). These  findings  may  also  explain  the  broad  appeal  of  some  politicians  who 
sprinkle  their  speeches  with  humor,  inducing  voters  to  respond  to  peripheral  cues 
instead  of  engaging  in  more  critical  thinking  about  their  policies. 

Because  it  involves  the  peripheral  processing  route,  humor  may  be  particularly 
effective  as  a  method  of  persuasion  with  people  who  are  motivated  to  avoid  thinking 
too  much  about  an  issue.  This  hypothesis  was  tested  in  two  studies  that  examined  the 
effects  of  a  humorous  persuasive  message  concerning  potentially  threatening  topics, 
specifically  the  use  of  sunscreen  to  prevent  skin  cancer  and  the  use  of  condoms  to 
prevent  sexually  transmitted  diseases  (Conway  and  Dube,  2002).  The  authors  hypoth- 
esized that  a  humorous  message  would  be  more  effective  than  a  nonhumorous  message 
for  high-masculinity  individuals,  but  not  for  low-masculinity  people.  Masculinity  (a 
characteristic  that  can  apply  to  both  men  and  women)  consists  of  an  assertive,  instru- 
mental orientation  characterized  by  being  independent,  forceful,  and  dominant.  Pre- 
vious research  has  shown  that  high-masculinity  people  are  particularly  averse  to 
feelings  of  distress,  and  they  therefore  avoid  thinking  about  threatening  topics  by 
engaging  in  distraction,  denial,  or  a  focus  on  the  positive. 

To  test  these  hypotheses,  male  and  female  participants  who  were  either  high  or 
low  in  masculinity  were  presented  with  either  a  humorous  or  a  nonhumorous  message, 


both  of  which  contained  an  equal  amount  of  information  about  the  topic.  The  par- 
ticipants were  then  asked  to  indicate  how  likely  they  would  be  to  engage  in  the  pre- 
ventive behaviors  in  the  future  (sunscreen  use  in  the  first  study  and  condom  use  in 
the  second).  As  predicted,  high-masculinity  participants  (both  male  and  female)  were 
more  strongly  persuaded  by  the  humorous  message  than  by  the  nonhumorous 
message,  whereas  low-masculinity  subjects  were  equally  persuaded  by  both  messages. 
The  authors  suggested  that  the  humorous  appeals  were  more  effective  for  high- 
masculinity  subjects  in  promoting  preventive  behaviors  because  the  humor  matched 
the  avoidant  manner  in  which  these  individuals  typically  respond  to  a  threatening 
topic,  allowing  them  to  engage  in  peripheral  (heuristic)  rather  than  central 
(elaborative)  processing  of  the  persuasive  message. 

The  research  discussed  so  far  focused  on  the  effectiveness  of  humor  in  persuasive 
messages  such  as  advertisements.  An  experiment  by  Karen  O'Quin  and  Joel  Aronoff 
(1981)  examined  whether  humor  is  effective  in  an  interpersonal  bargaining  situation. 
The  participants  in  this  study  were  instructed  to  act  as  buyers  of  a  painting,  negoti- 
ating a  sale  price  with  another  person  who  played  the  part  of  the  seller  (and  who  was 
actually  a  confederate  of  the  experimenter).  At  one  point  during  the  negotiation,  the 
confederate  made  either  a  nonhumorous  or  a  humorous  offer  to  the  subject  ("Well, 
my  final  offer  is  $100,  and  I'll  throw  in  my  pet  frog").  The  results  showed  that  the 
participants  who  received  the  humorous  offer  during  the  course  of  negotiations  agreed 
to  pay  a  higher  final  price  for  the  painting,  on  average,  than  did  those  who  received 
the  nonhumorous  offer.  Thus,  the  use  of  humor  by  the  seller  appears  to  provide  an 
advantage  in  sales  negotiations.  Interestingly,  further  analyses  indicated  that  this  effect 
was  not  simply  due  to  the  humor  causing  the  participants  to  like  the  seller  more. 
Instead,  the  authors  proposed  an  explanation  based  on  the  face-saving  effects  of  humor 
discussed  earlier.  In  particular,  they  suggested  that  humor  may  convey  the  message 
that  the  seller  does  not  take  the  situation  very  seriously,  thereby  allowing  the  buyer 
to  save  face  when  agreeing  to  pay  a  higher  price.  This  hypothesis  should  be  exam- 
ined further  in  future  research. 

In  summary,  there  does  not  appear  to  be  a  simple  relationship  between  humor 
and  persuasion.  The  role  of  humor  in  persuasion  depends  on  the  kind  of  processing 
involved  (peripheral  or  central),  and  characteristics  of  the  audience,  the  topic,  and  the 
source  of  the  message. 


Many  jokes  make  use  of  a  stereotype  about  a  particular  group  of  people  to  enable 
the  listener  to  resolve  an  incongruity  and  "get"  the  joke.  Consider  the  following  old 
English  riddle  (from  Raskin,  1985,  p.  189): 

How  do  you  make  a  Scotsman  mute  and  deaf? 
By  asking  him  to  contribute  to  a  charity. 

0  5     •     THE    SOCIAL     PSYCHOLOGY    OF    HUMOR 

To  resolve  the  puzzle  of  why  someone  would  suddenly  become  mute  and  deaf 
when  asked  to  contribute  money  to  a  charity,  one  needs  to  be  aware  of  the  English 
stereotype  of  Scottish  people  as  being  excessively  stingy.  The  presence  of  such  stereo- 
types in  many  jokes  raises  the  question  of  whether  jokes  making  fun  of  women,  people 
of  disadvantaged  ethnic  or  racial  groups,  homosexuals,  and  so  on,  reinforce  negative 
stereotypes  and  contribute  to  prejudice  and  discrimination.  As  noted  in  Chapter  3, 
theorists  holding  to  the  salience  hypothesis  have  argued  that  people  do  not  need  to 
agree  with  such  stereotypes  in  order  to  enjoy  these  types  of  disparaging  jokes,  and 
that  they  are  therefore  not  inherently  aggressive  or  offensive  (Attardo  and  Raskin, 
1991;  Goldstein  et  al.,  1972). 

We  saw  earlier  in  this  chapter  that  humor  is  often  used  to  communicate  contra- 
dictory and  ambiguous  messages.  When  people  make  disparaging  statements  about 
others  in  a  humorous  way,  they  can  leave  open  the  question  of  whether  they  "really 
mean  it"  or  are  "just  joking,"  and  whether  or  not  the  target  of  the  humorous  dispar- 
agement has  reason  to  take  offense.  This  ambiguity  in  the  meaning  of  humor  is  played 
out  in  the  "political  correctness"  debate,  which  has  generated  a  great  deal  of  contro- 
versy in  recent  years.  When  historically  disadvantaged  groups,  such  as  minorities  and 
women,  began  to  decry  the  use  of  disparaging  humor  in  the  workplace  and  in  public 
discourse  generally,  others  reacted  against  what  they  perceived  to  be  an  unwarranted 
restriction  of  their  right  to  free  speech,  suggesting  that  such  humor  was  all  in  fun  and 
should  not  be  taken  so  seriously  (Saper,  1995). 

Much  like  the  general  public,  humor  scholars  have  also  been  divided  over  this 
issue,  as  demonstrated  by  an  extended  debate  that  was  conducted  via  email  among  19 
humor  researchers  and  was  subsequently  published  in  Humor:  International  Journal  of 
Humor  Research  (Lewis,  1997).  Some  scholars,  such  as  Paul  Lewis,  argued  that  degrad- 
ing forms  of  sexist  and  racist  humor  can  serve  to  legitimize  and  perpetuate  negative 
stereotypes  and  contribute  to  a  culture  of  prejudice.  Others,  like  Arthur  Asa  Berger, 
countered  that  humor  is  inherently  iconoclastic,  is  valuable  for  rebelling  against 
norms,  rules,  and  restrictions  of  all  kinds,  and  should  not  be  restricted.  Still  others, 
such  as  John  Morreall,  suggested  that  the  offensiveness  of  a  joke  depends  not  so  much 
on  its  content  but  the  manner  and  context  in  which  it  is  told.  Such  differences  of 
opinion  among  humor  scholars  are  also  seen  in  two  sociological  studies  analyzing 
jokes  making  fun  of  "Jewish  American  princesses"  (JAPs),  which  arrived  at  radically 
different  conclusions.  Gary  Spencer  (1989)  concluded  that  these  jokes  are  essentially 
anti-Semitic  and  contribute  to  prejudice  and  negative  stereotypes  of  Jews,  whereas 
Christie  Davies  (1990b)  argued  that  they  are  not  based  on  anti-Semitism  at  all,  but 
actually  affirm  the  positive  qualities  of  Jewish  culture. 

We  saw  in  Chapter  2  that  Freud  (1960  [1905])  viewed  jokes  as  a  socially  accept- 
able means  of  expressing  aggressive  and  hostile  impulses.  In  addition,  Zillmann  and 
Cantor's  (1976)  dispositional  theory  of  humor  suggested  that  people  enjoy  jokes  that 
disparage  a  particular  group  of  people  when  they  have  negative  attitudes  toward  that 
group  and/or  positive  attitudes  toward  the  source  of  the  disparagement.  A  number  of 
studies  have  found  evidence  to  support  this  theory  (Cantor,  1976;  La  Fave,  Haddad, 
and  Marshall,  1974;  Wicker,  Barren,  and  Willis,  1980).  More  recently,  a  study  by 


Brigitte  Bill  and  Peter  Naus  (1992)  showed  that  people  who  perceive  incidents  involv- 
ing sexist  attitudes  and  behaviors  to  be  more  humorous  also  tend  to  view  them  as  less 
sexist  and  more  socially  acceptable.  Several  other  studies  have  revealed  that  individ- 
uals who  rate  sexist  and  female-disparaging  humor  as  more  ninny  and  enjoyable  are 
also  more  likely  to  endorse  sexist  attitudes  and  rape-related  beliefs  and  have  less 
liberal,  pro-feminist  attitudes  (Greenwood  and  Isbell,  2002;  Henkin  and  Fish,  1986; 
Moore,  Griffiths,  and  Payne,  1987;  Ryan  and  Kanjorski,  1998). 

Caroline  Thomas  and  Victoria  Esses  (2004),  at  the  University  of  Western 
Ontario,  found  that  men  with  higher  scores  on  a  measure  of  hostile  sexism,  as  com- 
pared to  those  with  lower  scores,  rated  female-disparaging  (but  not  male-disparaging) 
jokes  as  funnier  and  less  offensive,  and  were  more  likely  to  indicate  that  they  would 
repeat  these  sexist  jokes  to  others.  Further  analyses  revealed  that  these  differences 
were  not  merely  due  to  stereotypical  attitudes  or  prejudice  toward  women,  but  to 
hostile  attitudes.  Thus,  there  is  considerable  evidence  that  disparagement  humor,  such 
as  that  found  in  sexist  and  racist  jokes,  is  enjoyed  partly  because  it  enables  people  to 
express  negative  sentiments  and  attitudes  toward  the  target  groups  in  a  manner  that 
is  perceived  to  be  socially  acceptable. 

In  addition  to  research  indicating  that  enjoyment  of  disparagement  humor 
reveals  negative  attitudes  toward  the  target  of  the  humor,  researchers  have  recently 
begun  to  examine  the  question  of  whether  exposure  to  these  types  of  humor  can  actu- 
ally have  an  influence  on  listeners'  attitudes  and  stereotypes.  James  Olson  and  col- 
leagues (1999),  at  the  University  of  Western  Ontario,  conducted  three  experiments 
testing  whether  exposure  to  disparaging  humor  would  produce  more  extreme  or 
more  accessible  stereotypes  and  attitudes  concerning  the  disparaged  group.  Partici- 
pants in  the  experimental  conditions  were  exposed  to  disparaging  humor  about 
men  (in  two  studies)  or  lawyers  (in  the  third  study),  while  those  in  the  control  groups 
were  exposed  to  nondisparaging  humor,  nonhumorous  disparaging  information,  or 
nothing  at  all.  Dependent  measures  included  ratings  of  the  target  group  on  stereo- 
typic  attributes,  attitudes  toward  the  target  group,  and  latencies  of  stereotypic  and 
attitudinal  judgments  about  the  target  group  (to  assess  activation  of  prejudice 

Across  the  three  experiments,  a  total  of  83  analyses  yielded  only  one  significant 
difference  in  the  predicted  direction.  In  sum,  exposure  to  disparaging  humor  had  no 
demonstrable  effects  on  stereotype  or  attitude  extremity  or  accessibility.  Thus,  simply 
hearing  someone  tell  jokes  that  disparage  a  particular  target  group  does  not  seem  to 
cause  the  listener  to  have  more  negative  attitudes  toward  that  group.  A  limitation  of 
these  studies,  however,  is  that  the  disparaged  groups  in  these  studies  (men  and  lawyers) 
are  relatively  advantaged  in  the  culture;  different  results  might  have  been  found  if  the 
jokes  had  targeted  more  disadvantaged  groups.  The  authors  had  chosen  these  targets 
rather  than  jokes  disparaging  women  or  racial  minorities  because  of  ethical  concerns. 
However,  given  their  null  results,  it  seems  important  for  future  research  to  replicate 
these  findings  using  disparagement  humor  targeting  truly  disadvantaged  groups.  If 
the  same  results  are  found,  this  would  provide  more  conclusive  evidence  that  this  type 
of  humor  does  not  influence  the  attitudes  of  the  listeners. 

\"L  5     •    THE    SOCIAL    PSYCHOLOGY    OF    HUMOR 

Although  these  studies  found  little  evidence  that  listening  to  disparagement 
humor  creates  more  negative  stereotypes  and  attitudes  in  the  audience,  other  studies 
by  the  same  research  group  have  shown  that  telling  such  jokes  can  affect  joke-tellers' 
stereotypes  about  the  target  group.  Hobden  and  Olson  (1994)  had  participants  tell 
disparaging  jokes  that  played  upon  the  stereotype  that  lawyers  are  greedy.  Partici- 
pants' attitudes  toward  lawyers  were  then  measured.  The  results  indicated  that  freely 
reciting  the  disparaging  humor  about  lawyers  caused  participants  to  indicate  more 
negative  attitudes  toward  lawyers  afterwards. 

In  another  experiment,  Maio,  Olson,  and  Bush  (1997)  manipulated  whether  par- 
ticipants recited  jokes  that  disparaged  Newfoundlanders,  who  are  a  relatively  disad- 
vantaged  group  in  Canada,  or  nondisparaging  jokes.  In  a  supposedly  unrelated  study, 
the  participants  were  then  asked  to  complete  a  measure  of  their  stereotypes  and  atti- 
tudes toward  Newfoundlanders.  The  results  indicated  that  those  who  recited  dis- 
paraging humor  subsequently  reported  more  negative  stereotypes  (e.g.,  perceptions 
of  Newfoundlanders  as  having  low  intelligence)  than  did  those  who  recited 
nondisparaging  humor.  However,  the  participants'  evaluative  attitudes  toward 
Newfoundlanders  (e.g.,  ratings  of  good/bad,  likable/unlikable)  were  not  affected  by 
the  manipulation. 

Taken  together,  the  results  of  these  experiments  provide  some  evidence  that 
telling  disparaging  jokes  (as  opposed  to  merely  listening  to  them)  can  reinforce,  and 
perhaps  even  exacerbate,  negative  stereotypes  about  the  target  group.  It  is  not  clear, 
however,  whether  these  results  were  due  to  the  participants'  attitudes  or  stereotypes 
becoming  more  negative  as  a  result  of  reciting  the  jokes,  or  whether  the  jokes  simply 
made  pre-existing  beliefs  more  salient  and  therefore  more  accessible  from  memory. 
Another  possible  explanation  is  that  the  instructions  to  tell  such  jokes  may  have  caused 
participants  to  perceive  that  it  was  more  acceptable  to  express  their  pre-existing  neg- 
ative attitudes  or  stereotypes  in  this  situation,  whereas  those  in  the  control  groups 
suppressed  any  such  attitudes  in  their  responses.  Future  research  is  needed  to  explore 
these  alternative  explanations  of  the  results. 

Even  if  exposure  to  disparaging  humor  does  not  make  the  listeners'  attitudes 
more  negative  (as  suggested  by  the  study  of  J.  M.  Olson  et  al.,  1999),  it  may  make 
prejudiced  attitudes  seem  more  socially  acceptable  and  thereby  increase  tolerance 
for  discrimination,  particularly  in  people  who  already  have  negative  attitudes  toward 
the  target  group.  Thomas  Ford  (2000)  conducted  three  experiments  to  investigate 
these  hypotheses.  In  the  first  experiment,  participants  were  exposed  either  to  sexist 
jokes,  neutral  jokes,  or  nonhumorous  sexist  communications,  and  were  then  asked  to 
rate  the  acceptability  of  a  sexist  event  (a  vignette  describing  a  situation  in  which  a 
young  woman  was  treated  in  a  patronizing  manner  at  work  by  her  male  supervisor). 
The  results  showed  that,  after  exposure  to  sexist  jokes,  those  participants  (both  male 
and  female)  who  had  previously  been  identified  in  a  questionnaire  as  being  high  in 
hostile  sexism  showed  greater  tolerance  for  the  sexist  event,  in  comparison  to  those 
exposed  to  neutral  jokes  or  nonhumorous  sexist  communications.  This  effect  was 
not  found  among  participants  who  were  low  in  hostile  sexism.  Thus,  exposure  to 
sexist  attitudes  communicated  in  a  humorous  (but  not  a  serious)  manner  seems  to 


cause  people  with  pre-existing  sexist  attitudes  to  become  more  tolerant  of  sex 

These  findings  were  replicated  in  two  further  experiments,  which  also  showed 
that  these  effects  of  sexist  humor  on  participants  high  in  hostile  sexism  were  nullified 
when  sexist  jokes  were  interpreted  in  a  serious,  critical  manner,  as  a  result  of  either 
explicit  instructions  or  contextual  cues  such  as  information  about  the  group  mem- 
bership of  the  joke-teller.  These  findings  suggest  that  it  is  the  activation  of  a 
noncritical  mindset  (which  is  presumably  a  natural  by-product  of  humorous  commu- 
nication) that  makes  it  possible  for  sexist  humor  to  increase  tolerance  of  sex  discrim- 
ination. This  would  explain  why  nonhumorous,  serious  sexist  communications  did  not 
have  the  same  effect.  A  follow-up  experiment  indicated  that  exposure  to  sexist  humor 
causes  people  who  are  high  in  hostile  sexism  to  perceive  the  social  norm  as  being  more 
tolerant  of  sexism,  and  they  therefore  feel  less  guilty  about  behaving  in  a  sexist  manner 
themselves  (T.  E.  Ford,  Wentzel,  and  Lorion,  2001). 

In  summary,  the  existing  research  indicates  that  simply  being  exposed  to  sexist  or 
other  forms  of  disparaging  humor  is  not  likely  to  change  people's  attitudes,  stereo- 
types, or  prejudices  (which  tend  to  be  quite  stable  schemas).  However,  telling  these 
kinds  of  jokes  may  create  more  negative  stereotypes  in  the  joke-teller,  and  hearing 
them  can  cause  negative  stereotypes  to  become  more  salient  in  the  listener.  In  addi- 
tion, the  sexist  or  racist  attitudes  underlying  disparaging  jokes  may  be  interpreted  less 
critically  than  when  these  attitudes  are  expressed  in  a  serious  manner,  and  this  can 
create  a  social  climate  in  which  individuals  who  already  have  these  sorts  of  attitudes 
perceive  sexual  or  racial  discrimination  to  be  more  socially  acceptable,  causing  them 
to  be  more  tolerant  of  such  behavior  (T.  E.  Ford  and  Ferguson,  2004).  This  does  not 
mean  that  everyone  who  enjoys  disparagement  humor  necessarily  has  sexist,  racist,  or 
homophobic  attitudes  (Attardo  and  Raskin,  1991);  however,  the  research  indicates  that 
there  is  a  strong  tendency  for  the  two  to  go  together.  Furthermore,  although  simply 
telling  such  jokes  is  not  likely  to  change  other  people's  feelings  about  the  targets  of 
the  jokes,  for  those  who  do  have  such  attitudes  this  kind  of  humor  can  implicitly  com- 
municate a  level  of  social  tolerance  for  prejudice  that  may  help  to  perpetuate  dis- 
crimination and  social  inequities. 


We  saw  earlier  that  a  sense  of  humor  is  viewed  by  most  people  as  a  very  desir- 
able characteristic  in  a  friend  or  romantic  partner.  Most  of  us  assume  that  a  person 
with  a  greater  sense  of  humor  will  be  someone  with  whom  we  can  have  a  more 
satisfying  relationship  compared  to  someone  with  less  humor.  The  humorous  person 
is  seen  as  likely  to  be  enjoyable  to  be  with,  cheering  us  up  when  we  are  under  stress, 
and  refraining  from  becoming  ill-humored  and  burdening  us  unduly  when  he  or 
she  is  having  problems.  Are  these  stereotypes  accurate,  however?  Is  there  evidence 
that  humor  actually  contributes  to  better  relationships  and  greater  relationship 


A  common  view  is  that  couples  who  share  similar  preferences  in  humor  styles  will 
be  more  satisfied  with  their  relationship.  A  study  of  undergraduate  dating  couples 
found  evidence  in  support  of  this  hypothesis  (Murstein  and  Brust,  1985),  but  a  more 
recent  investigation  of  married  couples  did  not  (Priest  and  Thein,  2003).  Although 
spouses  in  the  latter  study  generally  tended  to  have  similar  styles  of  humor,  greater 
similarity  was  not  related  to  greater  marital  satisfaction.  Thus,  the  current  evidence 
is  unclear  as  to  whether  a  tendency  to  share  similar  humor  preferences  is  correlated 
with  relationship  satisfaction. 

On  the  other  hand,  there  is  consistent  evidence  from  studies  of  dating  and  married 
couples  that  relationship  satisfaction  is  correlated  with  positive  appraisals  of  a  partner's 
sense  of  humor.  That  is,  the  more  people  are  satisfied  with  their  relationship,  the  more 
they  report  that  their  partner  has  a  good  sense  of  humor,  regardless  of  whether  they 
like  the  same  types  of  jokes  (Rust  and  Goldstein,  1989;  Ziv  and  Gadish,  1989). 
Research  also  indicates  that  people  who  are  happily  married  often  attribute  their 
marital  satisfaction  in  part  to  the  humor  they  share  with  their  spouse  (Ziv,  1988a). 
When  men  and  women  who  had  been  married  for  over  50  years  were  asked  about  the 
reasons  for  the  stability  and  longevity  of  their  marriages,  "laughing  together  fre- 
quently" was  close  to  the  top  of  the  list  (Lauer,  Lauer,  and  Kerr,  1990).  However,  it 
is  important  to  note  that  such  correlational  findings  do  not  demonstrate  that  humor 
has  a  causal  effect  on  marital  satisfaction.  They  may  simply  indicate  that  people  who 
are  happy  with  their  marriage  (for  whatever  reason)  tend  to  appreciate  many  things 
about  their  spouses,  including  their  sense  of  humor. 

For  several  decades,  psychologist  John  Gottman  and  his  colleagues  have  been 
studying  marital  satisfaction  and  factors  predicting  marital  longevity  over  time 
(Gottman,  1994).  Their  main  research  method  involves  videotaping  married  couples 
engaging  in  discussions  about  problem  areas  in  their  marriage,  such  as  differences  of 
opinion  about  dealing  with  finances  or  disciplining  the  children.  Although  these  dis- 
cussions take  place  in  a  research  laboratory,  they  often  become  quite  emotionally 
intense.  Indeed,  the  couples  apparently  behave  in  these  laboratory  discussions  in  much 
the  same  way  they  normally  interact  when  discussing  problems  in  their  daily  lives. 
The  videotapes  are  then  analyzed  to  determine  the  degree  to  which  various  verbal 
and  nonverbal  expressions  of  emotion,  conflict-resolution  styles,  and  so  on,  are  pre- 
dictive of  marital  satisfaction  and  stability  in  the  couples,  both  concurrently  and 
prospectively  over  a  period  of  years  (Gottman,  1993). 

One  variable  that  these  researchers  have  examined  is  the  degree  to  which  part- 
ners use  benign  (nonsarcastic)  humor  during  these  discussions.  Overall,  the  studies 
indicate  that  individuals  who  are  more  satisfied  with  their  marriage,  as  compared  to 
those  who  are  unhappily  married,  show  higher  levels  of  humor  and  laughter  and  more 
reciprocated  laughter  during  the  problem  discussions  (Carstensen,  Gottman,  and 
Levenson,  1995;  Gottman,  1994).  Thus,  greater  use  of  humor  while  discussing  prob- 
lems is  indicative  of  greater  marital  harmony.  In  these  concurrent  analyses,  however, 
the  direction  of  causality  is  still  not  clear:  humor  use  in  problem  discussions  may  be 
a  result,  rather  than  a  cause,  of  current  marital  satisfaction. 


A  more  convincing  test  of  the  causal  role  of  humor  is  provided  by  longitudinal 
research  that  examines  whether  greater  expression  of  humor  at  one  point  in  time  pre- 
dicts long-term  marital  stability  several  years  later,  after  controlling  for  the  level  of 
marital  satisfaction  at  time  one.  In  this  type  of  research,  though,  the  findings  have 
been  less  clear-cut.  Gottman  and  his  colleagues  have  consistently  found  that  more  fre- 
quent expression  of  positive  emotions  (such  as  joy  and  affection)  during  the  problem 
discussions,  as  compared  to  negative  emotions  (such  as  anger  and  contempt),  is 
strongly  related  to  long-term  marital  stability.  However,  the  specific  contribution  of 
humor  to  this  prediction  has  been  inconsistent  (Gottman,  1994).  For  example, 
Gottman  and  Levenson  (1999)  were  able  to  predict  with  93  percent  accuracy  the  like- 
lihood of  marital  stability  versus  divorce  over  a  four-year  period  on  the  basis  of  the 
amount  of  affection,  anger,  disgust,  and  sadness  displayed  by  spouses  during  15- 
minute  discussions  in  the  laboratory.  However,  the  amount  of  humor  observed  in  the 
discussions  did  not  significantly  differentiate  between  those  who  remained  together 
and  those  who  were  divorced  or  separated  four  years  later. 

Other  studies  using  this  methodology  suggest  that  the  effects  of  humor  on  marital 
stability  may  depend  on  several  additional  factors,  and  may  differ  for  men  and  women. 
For  example,  a  study  of  newly  married  couples  by  Cohan  and  Bradbury  (1997),  using 
Gottman's  methodology,  found  that  when  humor  expression  by  husbands  during  a 
problem  discussion  was  associated  with  high  levels  of  major  stressful  events  in  the 
couple's  life,  the  couples  were  more  likely  to  be  separated  or  divorced  18  months  later. 
The  authors  suggested  that  husbands'  use  of  humor  during  times  of  stress  may  be  a 
way  for  them  to  temporarily  deflect  problems  and  avoid  the  anxiety  associated  with 
talking  about  them,  but  without  actively  confronting  and  resolving  the  problems. 
Hence,  humor  expressed  by  the  husband  in  the  context  of  major  life  stress  might  be 
associated  with  less  distress  in  the  short  term  but  not  with  longer-term  marital 

On  the  other  hand,  another  study  of  newlywed  couples  by  Gottman  and  his  col- 
leagues found  that  more  humor  expression  by  wives  during  a  problem  discussion  was 
predictive  of  greater  marital  stability  over  six  years,  but  only  when  the  wives'  humor 
led  to  a  reduction  in  the  husbands'  heart  rate  during  the  conversation  (Gottman, 
Coan,  Carrere,  and  Swanson,  1998).  Since  men  have  generally  been  found  to  become 
more  emotionally  aroused  and  agitated  than  their  wives  during  discussions  of  marital 
problems,  this  finding  suggests  that  humor  may  be  beneficial  to  marriage  when  it  is 
used  by  wives  in  ways  that  are  emotionally  calming  to  their  partners.  Thus,  while  hus- 
bands' use  of  humor  during  times  of  stress  can  sometimes  be  a  way  of  avoiding  dealing 
with  problems,  wives'  use  of  humor  can  be  a  way  of  helping  to  calm  their  spouse  emo- 
tionally while  encouraging  him  to  continue  dealing  with  the  problems.  In  turn,  these 
two  different  uses  of  humor  by  husbands  and  wives  can  have  different  effects  on  the 
long-term  stability  of  the  marriage. 

The  evidence  discussed  so  far  indicates  that  the  amount  of  humor  communicated 
by  spouses  to  each  other  relates  to  their  current  level  of  marital  satisfaction,  but  is  not 
always  predictive  of  the  long-term  stability  of  their  marriage.  Some  recent  research 


on  younger  dating  couples  suggests  that  a  sense  of  humor  may  even  be  detrimental  to 
relationship  longevity,  at  least  in  this  early  stage  of  heterosexual  relationships.  As  part 
of  her  doctoral  research,  one  of  my  students,  Patricia  Doris  (2004),  investigated  humor 
in  university  students  who  were  in  dating  relationships.  She  found  that,  for  both  males 
and  females,  those  who  had  higher  scores  on  a  measure  of  affiliative  humor  were 
significantly  more  likely  to  experience  a  breakup  in  their  dating  relationship  within 
five  months,  especially  if  the  other  partner  expressed  some  dissatisfaction  with  the 
relationship  at  time  one.  Similarly,  Keltner  and  colleagues  (1998)  found  that  dating 
partners  who  engaged  in  more  prosocial,  friendly  teasing  when  instructed  to  tease  one 
another,  as  compared  to  those  who  used  more  aggressive  teasing,  were  more  likely  to 
break  up  within  several  months. 

A  possible  explanation  of  these  surprising  findings  is  that,  because  people  with  a 
good  sense  of  humor  are  seen  by  others  as  being  especially  attractive,  they  are  more 
likely  to  be  able  to  find  another  relationship  quite  easily  if  things  go  badly  in  their 
current  one.  Consequently,  they  may  be  quicker  to  leave  a  dating  relationship  rather 
than  staying  in  it  and  attempting  to  resolve  any  problems  that  may  arise.  Thus,  iron- 
ically, a  characteristic  that  makes  individuals  appear  to  others  to  be  more  desirable  as 
a  dating  partner  may  actually  tend  to  cause  their  relationships  to  be  less  stable  over 
time.  In  a  similar  vein,  a  study  of  "fatal  attractions"  in  dating  relationships  found 
that,  while  a  sense  of  humor  may  be  a  characteristic  that  initially  makes  a  person 
attractive  as  a  potential  dating  partner,  this  same  characteristic  can  later  become  an 
irritant  that  causes  dissatisfaction  in  the  partner,  leading  to  a  breakup  of  the  relation- 
ship (Felmlee,  1995).  This  was  exemplified  by  one  female  participant  who  reported 
that  she  "was  attracted  to  her  partner  because  he  was  'funny  and  fan,'  but  later  dis- 
liked his  'constant  silliness'  and  the  fact  that  he  'never  seemed  to  take  the  relation- 
ship seriously'"  (Felmlee,  1995,  p.  303).  Further  research  is  needed  to  determine 
whether  these  counterintuitive  findings  of  greater  relationship  instability  in  dating 
partners  with  a  higher  sense  of  humor  are  also  found  in  more  committed  relation- 
ships such  as  marriage. 

In  summary,  research  on  humor  in  relationships  indicates  that,  although  a  sense 
of  humor  is  perceived  to  be  a  very  desirable  characteristic  in  a  romantic  partner,  it 
does  not  necessarily  increase  the  likelihood  that  the  relationship  will  be  more  satisfy- 
ing and  stable  over  time.  The  concept  of  sense  of  humor  has  become  associated  in 
popular  views  with  a  number  of  positive  connotations  and  assumptions  that  are  not 
necessarily  accurate.  As  we  have  seen,  humor  can  be  used  for  a  range  of  social  pur- 
poses, some  of  which  can  contribute  to  cohesiveness  and  enjoyment,  whereas  others 
are  more  aggressive  and  manipulative.  The  degree  to  which  humor  is  beneficial 
to  a  relationship  therefore  depends  on  the  ways  it  is  used  in  interactions  between 

In  recent  years,  researchers  in  this  area  have  increasingly  emphasized  the  impor- 
tance of  distinguishing  between  potentially  beneficial  and  detrimental  uses  of  humor 
in  investigating  its  role  in  relationships,  rather  than  viewing  it  as  a  unitary  and  purely 
positive  construct.  For  example,  the  Relational  Humor  Inventory  (de  Koning  and 
Weiss,  2002),  a  recently  developed  measure  for  studying  humor  in  relationships,  con- 


tains  separate  scales  for  positive,  negative,  and  instrumental  uses  of  humor  by  each 
partner  (see  also  R.  A.  Martin  et  al.,  2003).  In  Chapter  9, 1  will  discuss  research  using 
these  sorts  of  measures  to  examine  positive  and  negative  effects  of  humor  in  dating 
relationships  and  marriage,  as  well  as  in  nonromantic  friendships. 


A  number  of  studies  were  conducted  over  the  past  four  decades  to  investigate 
gender  differences  in  various  aspects  of  humor.  Many  additional  studies,  although  not 
specifically  focusing  on  gender,  reported  comparisons  of  the  responses  of  male  and 
female  participants.  Consequently,  there  is  a  large  amount  of  data  on  gender  differ- 
ences in  humor  (see  Lampert  and  Ervin-Tripp,  1998,  for  a  review  of  this  literature). 
Much  of  the  early  theory  and  research,  prior  to  the  emergence  of  the  women's  move- 
ment, suggested  that,  "when  it  comes  to  humor,  men  are  more  likely  to  joke,  tease, 
and  kid,  whereas  women  are  more  likely  to  act  as  an  appreciative  audience  than  to 
produce  humor  of  their  own"  (Lampert  and  Ervin-Tripp,  1998,  p.  235).  Studies  of 
humor  appreciation  generally  also  indicated  that  men  were  more  likely  than  women 
to  enjoy  humor  containing  aggressive  and  sexual  themes,  whereas  women  were  more 
likely  to  enjoy  "nonsense"  (i.e.,  nontendentious)  humor  (Groch,  1974;  Terry  and 
Ertel,  1974;  W.  Wilson,  1975).  In  addition,  there  was  some  evidence  that  both  men 
and  women  tended  to  enjoy  jokes  making  fun  of  women  more  than  jokes  targeting 
men  (Cantor,  1976;  Losco  and  Epstein,  1975). 

More  recently,  researchers  have  challenged  many  of  the  conclusions  drawn  from 
these  earlier  studies,  pointing  out  a  number  of  biases  inherent  in  their  research 
methods  (e.g.,  Crawford,  1989).  Almost  all  of  the  early  research  examined  sex  differ- 
ences in  appreciation  of  jokes  and  cartoons,  rather  than  the  spontaneous  creation  of 
humor  in  naturalistic  social  contexts.  For  both  men  and  women,  jokes  and  cartoons 
are  a  relatively  minor  source  of  humor  in  everyday  life,  compared  to  spontaneous, 
socially  situated  humor  (Graeven  and  Morris,  1975;  R.  A.  Martin  and  Kuiper,  1999; 
Provine,  1993).  Moreover,  joke-telling  tends  to  be  relatively  more  characteristic  of 
male  humor,  whereas  women  are  more  likely  to  relate  humorous  personal  anecdotes 
(Crawford  and  Gressley,  1991).  Consequently,  studies  testing  the  enjoyment  of  jokes 
likely  do  not  provide  a  representative  view  of  women's  (or  even  men's)  humor  more 

In  addition,  sexual  and  aggressive  jokes  are  frequently  disparaging  of  women,  and 
it  is  therefore  not  surprising  if  women  enjoy  them  less  than  men  do  (Chapman  and 
Gadfield,  1976;  Love  and  Deckers,  1989).  Indeed,  when  researchers  have  used  non- 
sexist  sexual  jokes  as  stimuli  (i.e.,  jokes  about  sex  that  do  not  disparage  either  women 
or  men),  they  generally  have  not  found  gender  differences  in  enjoyment  ratings 
(Chapman  and  Gadfield,  1976;  Hemmasi,  Graf,  and  Russ,  1994;  Henkin  and  Fish, 
1986;  Prerost,  1983;  D.  W.  Wilson  and  Molleston,  1981).  These  studies  indicate  that 
women  enjoy  sexual  humor  just  as  much  as  men  do  when  it  is  not  demeaning  toward 
women.  Furthermore,  whereas  women's  lower  enjoyment  ratings  of  sexual  and  hostile 


jokes  were  interpreted  by  researchers  as  evidence  of  greater  sexual  inhibition  or  con- 
ventionality, little  thought  was  given  to  the  possibility  that  women  may  also  use  unin- 
hibited and  unconventional  humor,  but  for  social  functions  other  than  the  release  of 
hostility  or  sexual  tension.  In  sum,  much  of  the  past  research  examining  gender  dif- 
ferences in  humor  has  been  characterized  by  gender  biases  in  the  choice  of  topics 
examined,  the  types  of  stimuli  presented  to  participants,  the  operationalization  of  vari- 
ables, and  the  interpretation  of  findings  (Crawford,  1989). 

Some  researchers  have  attempted  to  remedy  these  biases  in  laboratory  studies 
of  gender  differences  in  humor  appreciation  by  varying  the  gender  of  the  source 
and  target  of  disparagement  humor  or  by  including  examples  of  feminist  humor 
(Brodzinsky,  Barnet,  and  Aiello,  1981;  Gallivan,  1992;  Stillion  and  White,  1987). 
However,  since  the  focus  in  these  studies  continues  to  be  on  the  appreciation  of  humor 
stimuli  selected  by  the  experimenter,  they  still  do  not  examine  the  ways  men  and 
women  actually  create  and  use  humor  in  their  daily  interactions  with  others.  Recently, 
researchers  in  this  area,  as  in  other  social  psychological  research  on  humor,  have  begun 
to  shift  their  attention  away  from  the  appreciation  of  jokes  to  the  use  of  humor  in 
everyday  discourse.  Using  methods  such  as  questionnaires,  daily  diaries,  and  conver- 
sational analysis,  these  studies  have  attempted  to  examine  gender  differences  in  humor 
more  naturalistically. 

For  example,  Mary  Crawford  and  Diane  Gressley  (1991)  administered  a  68-item 
questionnaire  to  men  and  women,  asking  them  about  their  typical  appreciation  and 
creation  of  humor  involving  a  broad  range  of  topics,  styles,  and  types  of  humor. 
Overall,  men  and  women  showed  more  similarities  than  differences  in  their  responses. 
No  gender  differences  were  found,  for  example,  for  creativity  in  humor  production, 
tendency  to  laugh  at  oneself,  enjoyment  of  cartoons  and  comic  strips  in  newspapers 
and  magazines,  and  enjoyment  of  sexual  humor.  However,  men  reported  greater 
enjoyment  and  creation  of  hostile  humor,  a  greater  tendency  to  tell  canned  jokes,  and 
greater  enjoyment  of  slapstick  comedy.  On  the  other  hand,  women  reported  greater 
use  of  anecdotal  humor,  such  as  recounting  funny  stories  about  things  that  happen  to 
themselves  or  others. 

My  colleague  Nicholas  Kuiper  and  I  conducted  a  naturalistic  study  of  laughter  in 
which  we  asked  men  and  women  to  complete  daily  logs  recording  all  the  experiences 
that  caused  them  to  laugh  over  a  three-day  period  (R.  A.  Martin  and  Kuiper,  1999). 
The  sources  of  humor  were  grouped  into  four  categories:  media,  spontaneous  social 
situations,  canned  jokes,  and  recall  of  humorous  past  events.  Men  and  women  did  not 
differ  in  their  overall  frequency  of  reported  laughter  (averaging  17.5  reported  laughs 
per  day).  However,  women  were  significantly  more  likely  than  men  to  report  laugh- 
ing in  response  to  humor  arising  spontaneously  in  social  situations.  No  significant 
gender  differences  were  found  on  the  other  three  categories. 

Jennifer  Hay  (2000)  analyzed  the  interpersonal  functions  of  humor  occurring  in 
1 8  tape-recorded  conversations  among  small  groups  of  adult  friends,  including  all- 
female,  all-male,  and  mixed-sex  groups.  The  conversations  took  place  in  homes  of 
group  members,  and,  although  the  participants  were  aware  of  being  recorded,  they 


were  not  aware  that  humor  was  to  be  the  focus  of  the  study.  A  number  of  different 
humor  functions  were  identified  in  the  conversations,  and  these  were  classified  into 
three  broad  categories:  (1)  power-based  (e.g.,  aggressive  teasing),  (2)  solidarity-based 
(e.g.,  sharing  humorous  memories,  friendly  teasing),  and  (3)  psychological  (e.g.,  using 
humor  to  cope  with  problems).  The  data  analyses  indicated  that  women  were  much 
more  likely  than  men  to  use  humor  to  create  or  maintain  group  solidarity,  both  in 
same-sex  and  mixed-sex  groups.  This  function  of  humor  was  over  eight  times  more 
frequent  for  women  than  for  men.  In  particular,  women's  greater  solidarity-based 
humor  involved  humorous  disclosure  of  personal  information,  which  presumably 
enabled  the  conversational  partners  to  get  to  know  the  speaker  better  and  communi- 
cated a  sense  of  trust. 

Both  friendly  and  aggressive  forms  of  teasing  were  more  likely  to  occur  in  all- 
female  and  in  all-male  than  in  mixed-sex  groups,  and  teasing  was  only  slightly  more 
frequent  in  groups  of  men  as  compared  to  groups  of  women.  Thus,  women  were 
nearly  as  likely  to  tease  their  female  friends  as  men  were  to  tease  their  male  friends. 
The  use  of  humor  for  coping  was  also  more  common  in  single-sex  than  in  mixed-sex 
groups.  However,  a  difference  was  found  in  the  way  men  and  women  tend  to  use 
humor  to  cope.  Men  were  more  likely  to  engage  in  "contextual"  coping  (using  humor 
to  cope  with  an  immediate  problem  arising  in  the  context  of  the  conversation), 
whereas  women  were  more  likely  to  engage  in  "noncontextual"  coping  (using  humor 
in  talking  about  life  problems  outside  the  conversational  context).  Other  studies  of 
gender  differences  in  humor  in  naturalistic  discourse  were  reported  by  Lampert  and 
Ervin-Tripp  (1998)  and  by  Robinson  and  Smith-Lovin  (2001). 

As  these  examples  of  recent  research  demonstrate,  the  general  shift  in  humor 
studies  away  from  a  focus  on  appreciation  of  jokes  in  the  laboratory  to  an  exploration 
of  the  interpersonal  functions  of  spontaneous  humor  in  naturalistic  contexts  has  pro- 
duced changes  in  researchers'  ideas  about  the  relation  between  humor  and  gender. 
Further  research  is  needed  to  replicate  the  findings  of  these  and  other  similar  studies 
and  to  examine  their  generalizability  to  other  populations.  However,  the  data  col- 
lected thus  far  indicate  that,  although  women  and  men  do  not  differ  in  their  overall 
tendency  to  create  and  enjoy  humor,  and  there  are  many  similarities  in  their  uses  of 
humor,  they  also  tend  to  use  humor  for  somewhat  different  social  purposes. 

These  gender  differences  in  humorous  discourse  may  be  understood  in  terms  of 
the  way  gender  is  expressed  in  social  interactions  more  generally  (Crawford,  1992; 
2003).  According  to  Deborah  Tannen  (1986;  1990),  men  and  women  have  somewhat 
different  conversational  goals:  for  women,  the  primary  goal  of  friendly  conversation 
is  intimacy,  whereas  for  men  the  goal  is  positive  self-presentation.  These  different 
goals  are  also  reflected  in  the  ways  men  and  women  use  humor.  Women  more  often 
use  humor  to  enhance  group  solidarity  and  intimacy  through  self-disclosure  and  mild 
self-deprecation,  whereas  men  more  often  use  humor  for  the  purpose  of  impressing 
others,  appearing  funny,  and  creating  a  positive  personal  identity.  Thus,  humor  is  a 
mode  of  communication  that,  along  with  more  serious  communication,  is  used  to 
achieve  gender-relevant  social  goals. 



In  this  chapter  we  have  seen  that  humor  may  be  viewed  as  a  mode  of  communi- 
cation that  occurs  in  a  wide  range  of  everyday  social  contexts.  Although  it  is  playful 
and  nonserious,  and  is  often  seen  as  frivolous  and  unimportant,  humor  can  be  used 
for  a  number  of  "serious"  functions,  extending  into  every  aspect  of  social  behavior. 
As  sociologist  Linda  Francis  (1994)  pointed  out,  "there  is  more  to  explain  about 
humor  than  just  why  it  is  funny.  People  have  reasons  for  using  humor,  goals  they  wish 
to  accomplish  with  it"  (p.  157). 

According  to  recent  theory,  many  of  the  interpersonal  functions  of  humor  derive 
from  its  inherently  ambiguous  nature  due  to  the  multiple  concurrent  meanings  that 
it  conveys.  Because  of  this  ambiguity,  humor  is  a  useful  vehicle  for  communicating 
certain  messages  and  dealing  with  situations  that  would  be  more  difficult  to  handle 
using  a  more  serious,  unambiguous  mode  of  communication.  Importantly,  a  message 
communicated  in  a  humorous  manner  can  be  retracted  more  easily  than  if  it  were 
expressed  in  the  serious  mode,  allowing  both  the  speaker  and  the  listener  to  save  face 
if  the  message  is  not  well  received.  These  insights  concerning  the  ambiguity  and  face- 
saving  potential  of  humor  have  been  applied  by  theorists  and  researchers  to  account 
for  a  wide  variety  of  social  uses  of  humor,  including  self-disclosure  and  social  probing, 
decommitment  and  conflict  de-escalation,  enforcing  social  norms  and  exerting  social 
control,  establishing  and  maintaining  status,  enhancing  group  cohesion  and  identity, 
discourse  management,  and  social  play. 

The  multiple  interpersonal  functions  of  humor  suggest  that  it  may  be  viewed  as 
a  type  of  social  skill  or  interpersonal  competence.  Employed  in  an  adept  manner, 
humor  can  be  a  very  useful  tool  for  achieving  one's  interpersonal  goals.  This  does  not 
mean,  however,  that  humor  is  always  used  in  prosocial  ways.  If  an  individual's  goals 
in  a  particular  situation  are  to  establish  meaningful  relationships,  enhance  intimacy, 
and  resolve  conflicts,  the  sensitive  use  of  humor  may  be  an  effective  vehicle  for  fur- 
thering these  aims.  However,  if  the  goal  is  to  gain  an  advantage,  manipulate,  domi- 
nate, or  belittle  others,  humor  can  be  a  useful  skill  for  those  purposes  as  well. 

Because  of  its  inherent  ambiguity,  humor  can  be  employed  for  a  variety  of  con- 
tradictory purposes.  It  can  be  used  to  bring  people  closer  together  or  to  exclude  them, 
to  violate  social  norms  or  to  enforce  them,  to  dominate  over  and  manipulate  people, 
or  to  ingratiate  oneself  with  others.  Humor  can  also  be  used  to  reinforce  stereotypes 
or  to  shatter  prejudices,  to  resolve  conflicts  in  relationships  or  to  avoid  dealing  with 
problems,  to  convey  feelings  of  affection  and  tolerance,  or  to  denigrate  and  express 
hostility.  Most  people  likely  use  humor  for  many  of  these  different  purposes  at  dif- 
ferent times  and  in  different  contexts.  For  example,  when  you  are  at  work,  you  might 
use  humor  to  reinforce  your  status,  whereas  when  you  are  relaxing  with  a  group  of 
friends,  you  might  use  it  to  enhance  group  cohesion. 

Besides  being  an  interesting  topic  of  study  in  its  own  right  within  social  psy- 
chology, humor  also  has  important  implications  for  our  understanding  of  a  number 
of  other  topic  areas  that  have  long  been  of  interest  to  social  psychologists,  including 
person  perception  and  attraction,  persuasion,  attitudes  and  prejudice,  intimate  rela- 


tionships,  and  gender  differences.  By  studying  the  role  of  humor  in  each  of  these  areas, 
we  gain  new  insights  that  would  not  be  apparent  if  we  focused  only  on  the  serious 
mode  of  communication. 

The  role  of  humor  often  turns  out  to  be  more  complex  than  one  might  initially 
expect.  For  example,  although  a  sense  of  humor  is  generally  viewed  as  a  desirable 
characteristic  in  a  friend  or  romantic  partner,  research  indicates  that  it  can  contribute 
in  both  positive  and  negative  ways  to  relationship  satisfaction  and  stability,  depend- 
ing on  how  it  is  used  in  the  relationship.  Similarly,  in  the  area  of  persuasion,  a  humor- 
ous message  may  contribute  to  greater  persuasiveness  with  certain  topics  and 
audiences,  but  it  can  reduce  persuasiveness  with  others. 

The  existing  research  suggests  that  the  role  of  humor  in  many  areas  of  social  psy- 
chology may  be  at  least  as  important,  if  not  more  so,  than  some  other  factors  that 
have  typically  received  greater  research  attention.  For  example,  there  is  some  evidence 
(Cann  et  al.,  1997;  Feingold,  1981)  that  humor  may  have  a  stronger  influence  on  inter- 
personal attraction  than  do  attitude  similarity  and  physical  attractiveness,  both  of 
which  have  been  the  focus  of  considerably  more  research.  The  importance  of  humor 
in  the  areas  of  prejudice  and  stereotypes,  gender  differences,  and  intimate  relation- 
ships may  also  be  more  substantial  than  has  generally  been  recognized  in  the  existing 
research  on  these  topics.  Clearly,  to  gain  a  full  understanding  of  most  aspects  of  social 
behavior,  researchers  need  to  give  attention  to  the  complex  contributions  of  humor. 

In  view  of  the  ubiquity  of  humor  in  social  interaction,  its  obviously  important 
social  functions,  and  its  relevance  to  most  of  the  topics  of  interest  to  social  psychol- 
ogy, one  might  expect  that  humor  would  be  a  fairly  prominent  topic  in  social  psy- 
chology as  a  whole.  Surprisingly,  however,  the  study  of  humor  tends  to  be  a  relatively 
minor  topic  that  is  largely  ignored  by  the  mainstream.  Most  of  the  leading  social  psy- 
chology textbooks  contain  no  mention  of  humor  or  its  cognates.  The  most  recent 
edition  of  The  Handbook  of  Social  Psychology  (Gilbert  et  al.,  1998),  a  two-volume  "bible" 
for  the  field  that  spans  more  than  2000  pages,  contains  only  a  single  brief  mention  of 
humor.  By  and  large,  social  psychologists  seem  to  focus  almost  exclusively  on  serious 
modes  of  communication  in  social  interactions,  while  ignoring  the  important  func- 
tions of  the  humorous  mode. 

Recent  insights  about  the  interpersonal  uses  of  humor  that  I  have  discussed  in 
this  chapter  could  provide  a  basis  for  interesting  new  theoretical  models  and  hypothe- 
ses for  future  research.  As  these  ideas  become  more  widely  known,  they  will  hope- 
fully stimulate  greater  interest  among  social  psychologists  in  the  topic  of  humor. 
Because  humor  is  such  a  broad  topic,  the  greatest  empirical  advances  will  likely  be 
achieved  by  developing  more  narrowly  focused  theoretical  models  concerning  specific 
humor  components  or  processes.  A  good  example  of  the  types  of  relatively  focused 
and  heuristically  useful  theoretical  models  that  are  needed  in  this  area  is  the  face  threat 
analysis  of  teasing  developed  by  Keltner  and  colleagues  (2001).  Numerous  research 
questions  and  hypotheses  derived  from  this  model  remain  to  be  addressed  in  future 
research  (see  Keltner  et  al.,  1998,  for  further  research  ideas). 

As  we  will  see  throughout  this  book,  recognition  of  the  essentially  social  nature 
of  humor  also  has  important  implications  for  other  domains  of  psychology.  In  Chapter 


4,  we  saw  that  recent  research  on  cognitive  processes  involved  in  the  comprehension 
of  irony  and  sarcasm  has  increasingly  taken  into  account  the  influence  of  interper- 
sonal aspects  of  these  forms  of  humor.  The  interpersonal  view  of  humor  has  also  influ- 
enced recent  approaches  to  the  study  of  individual  differences  in  sense  of  humor, 
which  we  will  explore  in  Chapter  7.  In  Chapter  8,  we  will  examine  social  aspects  of 
the  development  of  humor  and  laughter  in  infancy  and  childhood.  A  social  perspec- 
tive may  also  be  very  useful  for  increasing  our  understanding  of  mental  health  aspects 
of  humor  and  its  role  in  coping  with  life  stress,  as  we  will  see  in  Chapter  9.  In  sum, 
while  the  existing  research  on  the  social  psychology  of  humor  has  provided  a  number 
of  interesting  insights  into  the  interpersonal  functions  of  humor,  this  continues  to  be 
a  potentially  very  fertile  field  for  future  investigation,  with  important  implications  for 
all  areas  of  psychology. 


.Like  all  psychological  phenomena,  humor 

is  based  on  a  large  number  of  complex  biological  processes  taking  place  in  the  brain 
and  nervous  system.  To  experience  humor,  an  individual  must  first  perceive  playful 
incongruity  in  a  stimulus  event.  This  perceptual  process  draws  on  systems  located  in 
many  regions  of  the  cerebral  cortex  involved  in  visual  and  auditory  perception,  lan- 
guage comprehension,  social  cognition,  logical  reasoning,  and  so  forth.  When  humor 
is  perceived,  these  cognitive  processes  stimulate  emotional  systems  associated  with 
positive  feelings  of  mirth  and  amusement,  involving  areas  in  the  prefrontal  cortex  and 
limbic  system.  These  emotion  systems  also  release  a  cocktail  of  biochemical  mole- 
cules, producing  further  changes  in  the  brain  and  throughout  the  body  via  the  auto- 
nomic  nervous  system  and  endocrine  system.  In  addition,  the  activation  of  mirthful 
emotion  typically  triggers  the  expressive  responses  of  smiling  and  laughter,  which 
involve  the  brainstem  and  its  connections  to  the  forebrain,  as  well  as  nerves  leading 
to  muscles  in  the  face,  larynx,  and  respiratory  system. 

The  investigation  of  these  sorts  of  biological  processes  in  humor  lies  within  the 
domain  of  biological  psychology  (also  known  as  psychobiology  or  physiological  psy- 
chology), the  branch  of  the  discipline  that  studies  the  relation  between  behavior 
and  the  body,  particularly  the  brain.  Biological  psychology  is  part  of  a  broader  field 
of  study  known  as  neuroscience,  which  also  includes  disciplines  such  as  neurophysi- 
ology,  neuroanatomy,  and  brain  biochemistry.  Although  the  study  of  humor  and 
laughter  has  not  been  a  major  focus  in  biological  psychology,  there  has  been  a  small 



but  steady  output  of  research  on  this  topic  over  the  years.  The  recent  publication 
of  several  functional  magnetic  resonance  imaging  (fMRI)  studies  (e.g.,  Azim  et  al., 
2005)  as  well  as  articles  on  topics  such  as  the  evolution  of  humor  and  laughter  (e.g., 
Gervais  and  Wilson,  2005)  suggest  that  interest  in  this  topic  is  increasing  (see  also 
Vaid,  2002). 

As  we  will  see,  biological  research  on  humor  and  laughter  highlights  the  impor- 
tance of  emotional  components  of  humor  in  addition  to  the  cognitive  aspects,  point- 
ing to  humor  as  an  interesting  topic  for  investigating  the  interplay  between  emotion 
and  cognition  more  generally.  As  such,  the  psychobiological  study  of  humor  may  be 
viewed  as  a  subject  within  the  newly  developing  field  of  affective  neuroscience 
(Panksepp,  1998).  Our  discussion  of  biological  aspects  of  humor  also  provides  an 
opportunity  to  focus  more  closely  on  many  interesting  questions  concerning  the 
nature  and  functions  of  laughter. 

In  this  chapter,  I  will  begin  by  discussing  laughter  as  an  emotional  display  that 
expresses  the  positive  emotion  of  mirth,  followed  by  an  overview  of  research  on  the 
acoustics,  respiration,  phonation,  and  facial  expressions  of  laughter,  as  well  as  the  auto- 
nomic  and  visceral  concomitants  of  mirth.  The  subsequent  discussion  of  laughter  in 
nonhuman  animals  will  underscore  the  close  connection  between  humor,  laughter, 
and  play.  I  will  then  explore  several  other  laughter-related  topics,  including  patho- 
logical laughter  conditions,  laughter  and  the  brain,  and  tickling  as  a  stimulus  for 
laughter.  Next,  I  will  turn  to  investigations  of  the  brain  areas  involved  in  the  cogni- 
tive and  emotional  processing  of  humor,  including  studies  of  humor  in  patients  with 
localized  brain  damage  as  well  as  studies  of  normal  subjects  using  EEG  and  fMRI. 
Finally,  I  will  discuss  theories  about  the  evolutionary  origins  and  adaptive  functions 
of  humor  and  laughter. 


As  many  authors  have  noted,  boisterous  laughter  comprises  a  very  strange  set  of 
behaviors.  A  hypothetical  alien  from  outer  space  would  certainly  be  struck  by  the 
oddity  of  this  behavior,  noting  the  loud,  barking  noises  that  are  emitted,  the  repeti- 
tive contractions  of  the  diaphragm  and  associated  changes  in  respiration,  the  open 
mouth  and  grimaces  caused  by  contractions  of  facial  muscles,  the  flushing  of  the  skin, 
increased  heart  rate  and  general  physiological  arousal,  production  of  tears  in  the  eyes, 
loss  of  strength  in  the  extremities,  and  flailing  body  movements  (cf.  Askenasy,  1987; 
Keith-Spiegel,  1972).  Such  hearty  laughter  seems  to  take  over  the  whole  organism  in 
an  uncontrollable  and  compulsive  way,  conveying  almost  overwhelming  feelings  of 
enjoyment  and  amusement.  It  is  also  very  contagious  and  difficult  to  fake  (van  Hooff 
and  Preuschoft,  2003).  What  a  peculiar  way  for  people  to  respond  to  the  perception 
of  humor! 

Koestler  (1964)  characterized  laughter  as  a  physiological  reflex,  and  suggested 
that  it  is  the  only  domain  in  which  a  highly  complex  mental  stimulus  (i.e.,  humor) 
produces  such  a  stereotyped  reflexive  response.  However,  as  van  Hooff  and  Preuschoft 


(2003)  have  pointed  out,  the  term  reflex  is  a  misnomer  because,  unlike  reflexes,  laugh- 
ter is  highly  dependent  on  motivational  and  emotional  states  and  social  context. 
Instead,  laughter  seems  to  be  best  characterized  as  a  "fixed  action  pattern,"  a  ritual- 
ized and  largely  stereotyped  behavior  pattern  that  serves  as  a  communication 

Laughter  and  Emotion 

As  Charles  Darwin  (1872)  noted  in  The  Expression  of  the  Emotions  in  Man  and 
Animals,  laughter  is  essentially  an  emotional  expression,  a  way  of  communicating  to 
others  that  one  is  feeling  a  particular  emotion.  Thus,  laughter  is  one  of  many  largely 
hardwired  behavior  patterns  used  by  humans  to  communicate  a  wide  range  of  posi- 
tive and  negative  emotions,  including  various  facial  expressions  (e.g.,  scowling,  frown- 
ing), vocal  sounds  (e.g.,  gasping,  screaming),  bodily  actions  (e.g.,  trembling,  shaking 
the  fist),  changes  in  speech  patterns  (e.g.,  shouting,  whining),  and  so  on.  In  the 
case  of  laughter,  the  particular  emotion  that  is  communicated  is  a  pleasurable  feeling 
closely  related  to  joy.  As  noted  in  Chapter  1 ,  researchers  have  not  yet  settled  on  an 
agreed-upon  technical  name  for  this  emotion,  with  different  scholars  referring  to 
it  as  "amusement,"  "humor  appreciation,"  or  "exhilaration."  I  prefer  the  term 
mirth,  which  captures  its  emotional  nature  as  well  as  its  association  with  humor  and 

The  emotion  of  mirth  is  therefore  primary,  with  laughter  (along  with  smiling) 
being  an  emotional  display.  The  more  intense  the  emotion,  the  stronger  the  expres- 
sive display.  At  low  levels  of  intensity,  mirth  is  expressed  by  a  faint  smile,  which  turns 
into  a  broader  smile  and  then  audible  chuckling  and  laughter  as  the  emotional  inten- 
sity increases.  At  very  high  intensity,  it  is  expressed  by  loud  guffaws,  often  accompa- 
nied by  a  reddening  of  the  face  as  well  as  bodily  movements  such  as  throwing  back 
the  head,  rocking  the  body,  slapping  one's  thighs,  and  so  on.  Although,  as  we  will 
see,  there  is  evidence  that  smiling  and  laughter  may  have  different  evolutionary 
origins,  they  are  very  closely  related  in  humans,  with  smiling  and  laughter  occurring 
along  a  continuum  of  emotional  intensity.  The  same  facial  muscles  are  involved  in 
laughter  and  smiling,  with  stronger  contractions  of  longer  duration  occurring  in 
laughter  than  in  smiling  (Ruch,  1993).  The  close  connection  between  smiling  and 
laughter  is  also  evident  in  the  fact  that  laughter  typically  begins  as  a  smile  and,  after 
the  laughter  ends,  gradually  fades  smoothly  back  into  a  smile  once  again  (Pollio,  Mers, 
and  Lucchesi,  1972). 

Like  all  emotions,  mirth  has  behavioral,  physiological,  and  experiential  compo- 
nents. In  addition  to  the  vocalizations,  facial  expressions,  and  bodily  actions  that 
characterize  the  expressive  behavior  of  laughter,  mirth  involves  a  range  of  physiolog- 
ical changes  that  take  place  in  the  brain,  autonomic  nervous  system,  and  endocrine 
system,  along  with  subjective  feelings  of  pleasure,  amusement,  and  cheerfulness.  I  will 
discuss  each  of  these  components  in  the  following  sections.  As  we  will  see,  the  emotion 
of  mirth  that  is  expressed  by  laughter  also  appears  to  be  closely  related  to  play.  Much 
of  the  laughter  of  early  childhood  may  be  seen  as  an  expression  of  the  exuberant 

6     •     THE     PSYCHOBIOLOGY    OF    HUMOR    AND    LAUGHTER 

delight  associated  with  physical  play  activities  such  as  running,  chasing,  and  rough- 
and-tumble  play-fighting,  as  well  as  incongruous  playful  actions  such  as  peek-a-boo 

Since  social  play  is  an  important  activity  in  juveniles  of  all  mammal  species,  the 
evolutionary  origins  of  mirth  and  laughter  in  play  may  well  extend  to  our  earliest 
mammalian  ancestors  some  60  million  years  ago.  As  children's  cognitive  and  linguis- 
tic abilities  develop,  they  begin  to  laugh  not  only  at  physical  play,  but  also  in  response 
to  the  sorts  of  playful  manipulation  of  incongruous  ideas,  words,  and  concepts  that 
we  call  "humor."  Thus,  humor  may  be  viewed  as  a  cognitive-linguistic  form  of 
play  that  elicits  the  emotion  of  mirth  which,  in  turn,  is  typically  expressed  through 

Humor  may  not  be  the  only  stimulus  that  elicits  the  emotion  of  mirth  and  the 
laughter  that  expresses  it.  This  emotion  may  also  be  elicited  by  several  other  stimuli, 
including  nitrous  oxide  (N2O,  or  "laughing  gas")  and  possibly  tickling  (Niethammer, 
1983;  Ruch,  1993).  At  any  particular  time,  an  individual's  threshold  for  experiencing 
mirth  can  be  raised  or  lowered  by  a  variety  of  factors,  such  as  the  social  context  (e.g., 
feelings  of  safety,  the  presence  of  other  people  who  are  laughing),  one's  current  mood 
(cheerfulness  versus  depression;  Deckers,  1998;  Ruch,  1997),  health  status,  level  of 
fatigue,  ingestion  of  alcohol  or  psychoactive  drugs  (Lowe  et  al.,  1997;  J.  B.  Weaver 
et  al.,  1985),  and  more  enduring  personality  traits  such  as  one's  overall  sense  of  humor 
(Ruch,  1993). 

Acoustics  of  Laughter 

The  characteristic  that  most  strikingly  distinguishes  laughter  from  other  human 
activities  is  the  loud  and  distinctive  sounds  that  are  emitted.  As  we  will  see,  the  func- 
tion of  these  laughter  sounds  appears  to  be  both  to  communicate  to  others  one's  joyful 
and  playful  emotional  state,  and  to  induce  this  same  emotional  state  in  the  listeners 
(Gervais  and  Wilson,  2005).  In  recent  years,  researchers  have  begun  to  study 
the  acoustics  (sound  properties)  of  laughter,  employing  methods  commonly  used  by 
ethologists  to  investigate  animal  vocalizations  such  as  bird  songs.  In  this  research, 
recordings  of  human  laughter  are  digitized  and  then  analyzed  using  computer-based 
spectrographic  procedures  to  examine  their  audio  waveforms,  frequency  patterns,  and 
other  acoustical  characteristics.  The  unit  of  analysis  in  these  studies  is  usually  the 
series  of  "ha-ha-ha"  sounds  that  are  made  during  a  single  exhalation.  Researchers  refer 
to  such  a  laugh  episode  as  a  laughter  bout,  and  the  individual  "ha"  syllables  are  referred 
to  as  calls  (Bachorowski  et  al.,  2001),  notes  (Provine  and  Yong,  1991),  or  pulses  (Ruch 
and  Ekman,  2001). 

Psychologists  Robert  Provine  and  Yvonne  Yong  (1991),  at  the  University  of  Mary- 
land, analyzed  the  acoustical  properties  of  5 1  laughter  bouts  produced  by  male  and 
female  university  students  and  staff  members.  To  obtain  recordings  of  laughter,  they 
approached  people  in  public  places  with  a  tape  recorder  and  asked  them  to  "simulate 
hearty  laughter."  Most  people  found  it  very  difficult  to  laugh  on  command,  and  their 
first  attempts  were  typically  strained  and  artificial,  presumably  because  they  were  not 


actually  experiencing  the  emotion  of  mirth  that  laughter  normally  expresses. 
However,  the  funniness  of  the  activity  itself,  along  with  the  clowning  and  kidding  of 
the  experimenters,  typically  caused  the  subjects  to  begin  feeling  amused  and  they 
started  laughing  spontaneously  and  naturally.  It  was  these  natural  and  spontaneous 
bouts  of  laughter  that  were  subsequently  analyzed. 

These  analyses  revealed  that,  on  average,  each  laugh  bout  consisted  of  four  indi- 
vidual notes  or  calls,  although  there  was  considerable  variability  in  this  number, 
ranging  from  one  to  as  many  as  16  in  some  laughter  samples,  but  typically  no  more 
than  eight.  Each  laugh  note  within  a  bout  was  found  to  begin  with  a  protracted  voice- 
less aspirant  (i.e.,  a  hissing  h  sound  not  produced  by  vibration  of  the  vocal  cords).  This 
was  followed  by  a  forcefully  voiced  vowellike  sound  with  an  average  duration  of  about 
75  milliseconds.  Another  voiceless  aspirant  then  followed,  with  an  average  duration 
of  about  135  milliseconds,  followed  by  the  next  voiced  vowel  sound.  Thus,  each  com- 
plete "ha"  note  was  about  210  milliseconds  in  duration,  resulting  in  about  five  notes 
typically  being  emitted  per  second.  Not  surprisingly,  the  fundamental  frequency 
(corresponding  to  the  perceived  pitch)  of  male  laughter  (averaging  276  Hertz)  was 
lower  than  that  of  females  (502  Hertz),  reflecting  the  lower  pitch  of  men's  voices. 
Each  laugh  note  showed  a  clear  harmonic  structure,  with  numerous  secondary  fre- 
quencies occurring  as  multiples  of  the  fundamental  frequency,  producing  a  richly 
harmonious  quality. 

Based  on  their  analyses,  Provine  and  Yong  emphasized  the  stereotypical  nature 
of  laughter,  observing  that  there  was  very  little  variability  across  people  in  such  char- 
acteristics as  the  overall  duration  of  individual  notes.  Regardless  of  the  number  of 
notes  in  a  given  bout  of  laughter,  the  duration  of  each  note  (onset-to-onset  inter-note 
interval,  or  INI)  seemed  to  remain  fairly  constant,  at  about  210  milliseconds. 
However,  the  voiced  segment  ("vowel  sound")  of  each  note  became  slightly  shorter 
from  the  beginning  to  the  end  of  a  laugh  bout,  while  the  intervening  unvoiced  (h 
sound)  segments  became  correspondingly  longer,  thus  maintaining  the  same  overall 
duration  for  each  note.  They  also  observed  that  the  amplitude  (loudness)  of  each 
voiced  note  segment  decreased  from  the  beginning  to  the  end  of  a  bout.  Interestingly, 
when  played  backwards,  a  laugh  bout  sounds  quite  normal,  except  for  the  fact  that  it 
becomes  progressively  louder  instead  of  quieter.  This  is  quite  different  from  human 
speech,  which  does  not  sound  at  all  normal  when  played  backwards. 

Because  Provine  and  Yong's  (1991)  analyses  were  conducted  on  a  relatively  small 
sample  of  laughs  obtained  from  people  who  were  asked  to  produce  laughter  on 
demand,  they  may  not  have  been  representative  of  the  full  range  of  laughter  that 
occurs  naturally  in  social  settings.  Consequently,  they  may  have  concluded  that  laugh- 
ter is  more  stereotyped  and  unvarying  than  it  actually  is.  More  recently,  Jo-Anne 
Bachorowski  and  her  colleagues  (2001),  at  Vanderbilt  University,  conducted  more 
extensive  acoustical  analyses  of  laughter  using  recordings  of  1024  laughter  bouts  from 
97  male  and  female  university  students.  To  obtain  a  wide  range  of  naturalistic  laugh- 
ter samples,  recordings  were  made  while  the  participants  were  watching  humorous 
videotapes  in  a  comfortable  laboratory  setting,  either  alone  or  in  same-sex  or  mixed- 
sex  dyads. 

)8  6     •     THE     PSYCHOBIOLOGY    OF    HUMOR    AND    LAUGHTER 

In  contrast  to  the  stereotypy  of  laughter  emphasized  by  Provine  and  Yong,  these 
researchers  found  evidence  of  a  great  deal  of  variability  and  complexity  in  the  acoustic 
properties  of  laughter.  Several  different  types  of  individual  laugh  calls  (notes)  were 
identified,  including  voiced  "songlike,"  unvoiced  "gruntlike,"  and  unvoiced  "snort- 
like"  calls,  in  addition  to  "glottal  pulses,"  and  "glottal  whistles."  Several  of  these  dif- 
ferent types  of  calls  were  often  observed  within  a  single  bout  of  laughter,  and  there 
was  little  consistency  within  individual  participants  in  the  types  of  calls  that  they  pro- 
duced from  one  laugh  bout  to  another.  However,  some  general  sex  differences  were 
observed.  Females  produced  significantly  more  bouts  containing  voiced,  songlike 
calls,  whereas  males  produced  more  unvoiced,  gruntlike  laughs.  Men  and  women  did 
not  differ,  though,  in  the  frequency  of  unvoiced  snortlike  laughs.  Although  there  were 
no  sex  differences  in  the  overall  number  of  laugh  bouts  produced  in  response  to  the 
humorous  videotapes,  men^  bouts  tended  to  be  slightly  longer  than  women's,  with 
more  calls  per  bout. 

On  average,  laugh  bouts  were  comprised  of  3 .4  calls  per  bout,  with  a  total  dura- 
tion of  870  milliseconds,  but  there  was  a  great  deal  of  variability  in  these  numbers. 
Laugh  bouts  typically  began  with  a  fairly  long  call  (280  milliseconds  duration)  fol- 
lowed by  a  series  of  shorter  calls  (lasting  130  milliseconds  each).  Like  Provine  and 
Yong,  these  researchers  found  that  the  unvoiced  ^-sound  segments  between  calls 
tended  to  be  shorter  at  the  beginning  of  a  bout  and  then  became  progressively  longer 
toward  the  end.  Analyses  of  fundamental  frequencies  of  calls  also  indicated  a  consid- 
erable amount  of  variability,  both  between  and  within  individuals.  Indeed,  the  funda- 
mental frequencies  were  often  found  to  change  over  the  course  of  an  individual  call, 
either  rising  or  falling  in  pitch.  Compared  to  shorter  bouts,  longer  bouts  of  laughter 
tended  to  have  higher  mean  fundamental  frequencies  and  greater  shifts  in  frequency 
within  calls. 

Analyses  of  the  vowel  sounds  in  voiced  calls  revealed  that  these  are  not  nearly  as 
distinct  or  clearly  articulated  as  the  vowels  of  speech,  but  tend  to  be  a  central,  unar- 
ticulated  schwa  (like  the  a  sound  in  "about").  Contrary  to  the  observations  of  Provine 
and  Yong  (1991),  "ho-ho"  and  "he-he"  laughs  were  extremely  rare,  while  "ha-ha"  was 
much  more  common.  Nonetheless,  there  was  some  evidence  that  individuals  tend  to 
have  distinct  laughs  based  on  slight  variations  in  the  vowel  sounds  and  other  vocal 
characteristics  that  they  produce  while  laughing.  Bachorowski  and  her  colleagues  con- 
cluded that  laughter  is  much  less  stereotyped  than  claimed  by  Provine  and  Yong 
(1991),  but  instead  should  be  conceptualized  as  a  "repertoire  of  sounds."  Arguing  that 
laughter  has  an  important  social  communication  function  (discussed  in  Chapter  5), 
they  suggested  that  these  different  sounds  of  laughter  are  combined  in  various  ways 
to  communicate  subtle  differences  in  emotional  meanings  to  other  people. 

In  a  series  of  experiments,  Silke  Kipper  and  Dietmar  Todt  (2001,  2003a,  2003b), 
at  the  Free  University  of  Berlin,  took  a  somewhat  different  approach  to  studying  the 
acoustics  of  laughter.  Using  computer  equipment,  they  systematically  modified 
various  acoustical  parameters  of  natural  laughter  bouts,  such  as  the  duration  of  laugh 
notes,  the  fundamental  frequencies,  and  amplitude  (loudness).  They  then  had  partic- 
ipants listen  to  these  altered  laugh  bouts  and  asked  them  to  rate  the  degree  to  which 


these  laughs  sounded  like  normal  laughter,  as  well  as  rating  their  emotional  responses 
to  them.  Among  a  number  of  interesting  findings,  these  researchers  found  that  laugh- 
ter can  diverge  to  a  considerable  degree  on  various  acoustical  parameters  and  still  be 
perceived  as  normal  laughter.  Moreover,  laugh  bouts  that  showed  substantial  vari- 
ability across  calls  were  considered  more  natural  and  elicited  more  positive  emotional 
responses  as  compared  to  more  stereotyped  bouts  containing  little  variability.  These 
findings  cast  further  doubt  on  the  view  of  laughter  as  a  highly  stereotyped  vocaliza- 
tion. Additional  findings  from  these  studies  supported  the  view  of  laughter  as  a 
method  of  communicating  positive  emotions  and  eliciting  similar  emotional  responses 
in  others.  For  example,  the  more  natural-sounding  a  laugh  bout  was  rated  to  be,  the 
more  it  elicited  a  positive  emotional  response  (for  additional  acoustical  research  on 
laughter,  see  Mowrer,  1994;  Mowrer,  LaPointe,  and  Case,  1987;  Nwokah  et  al.,  1999; 
Vettin  and  Todt,  2004). 

Laughter  Respiration  and  Phonation 

To  produce  the  distinctive  sounds  of  laughter,  we  make  use  of  a  number  of  muscles 
that  control  our  breathing,  larynx,  and  vocal  apparatus  (for  a  detailed  description  see 
Ruch  and  Ekman,  2001).  The  normal  human  breathing  cycle  consists  of  inspiration, 
inspiration  pause,  expiration,  and  expiration  pause.  Regardless  of  where  the  person 
happens  to  be  in  this  cycle,  laughter  typically  begins  with  an  initial  forced  exhalation 
(Lloyd,  1938),  which  brings  the  lung  volume  down  to  around  functional  residual 
capacity  (i.e.,  the  volume  that  remains  after  a  normal  expiration).  This  is  followed  by 
a  sustained  sequence  of  repeated,  rapid,  and  shallow  expirations,  which,  when  accom- 
panied by  phonation,  produce  the  "ha-ha-ha"  of  laughter.  By  the  end  of  this  expira- 
tory laugh  bout,  the  lungs  reach  residual  volume  (i.e.,  the  air  volume  remaining  in  the 
lungs  after  maximal  expiration).  Thus,  laughter  typically  occurs  at  a  low  lung  volume, 
forcing  out  more  air  from  the  lungs  than  occurs  during  normal  breathing.  Following 
a  laughter  bout,  a  quick  inhalation  occurs,  filling  the  lungs  once  again  to  normal  capac- 
ity. Another  laughter  bout  may  then  follow.  Due  to  this  unusual  amount  of  expira- 
tion, laughter  produces  a  greatly  increased  breathing  amplitude,  up  to  2.5  times 
greater  than  that  which  occurs  during  normal  breathing. 

The  predominantly  expiratory  respiration  pattern  during  laughter  is  produced  by 
saccadic  contractions  of  muscles  that  are  normally  passive  during  expiration,  includ- 
ing the  diaphragm,  abdominal  (rectus  abdominus),  and  rib  cage  (triangularis  stemi} 
muscles  (Ruch  and  Ekman,  2001).  Along  with  the  action  of  these  respiratory  muscles, 
respiration  during  laughter  is  also  regulated  by  the  larynx,  which  serves  as  a  valve  sep- 
arating the  trachea  from  the  upper  aerodigestive  tract.  In  the  larynx,  the  glottis  (com- 
prising the  vocal  folds)  initially  closes  to  prevent  the  air  from  being  exhaled  too 
quickly,  causing  a  buildup  of  subglottal  air  pressure.  The  glottis,  aided  by  the  ary- 
tenoid  cartilages,  then  begins  to  open  and  close  rhythmically,  permitting  short  bursts 
of  pressurized  air  to  escape.  Each  time  the  glottis  closes  to  a  narrow  slit,  the  vocal 
cords  begin  to  vibrate,  producing  the  "ha"  sounds.  Because  the  glottis  continues 
to  move  and  change  shape  while  these  vibrations  are  occurring,  the  fundamental 

6     •     THE     PSYCHOBIOLOGY    OF    HUMOR    AND    LAUGHTER 

frequency  (pitch)  of  the  sound  produced  rises  and  falls  during  each  individual  call,  as 
well  as  changing  from  one  call  to  the  next,  rather  than  maintaining  a  constant  fre- 
quency. Each  time  the  glottis  opens  more  widely,  it  stops  vibrating,  and  the  escaping 
air  produces  the  unvoiced  h  sound  between  each  voiced  call. 

These  sound  vibrations  are  carried  through  the  vocal  tract,  whose  shape  ampli- 
fies or  dampens  various  frequency  characteristics  of  the  sounds,  and  finally  the  air 
escapes  through  the  mouth  or  nose.  The  amount  of  tension  on  the  vocal  cords;  posi- 
tion of  the  larynx,  tongue,  and  jaw;  shape  of  the  mouth  and  lips;  and  even  the  degree 
of  contraction  of  various  facial  muscles  (all  of  which  can  be  influenced  by  the  person's 
current  emotional  state)  further  influence  the  sound  quality  of  the  laughter.  As  found 
in  research  on  the  acoustics  of  laughter  (Bachorowski  et  al.,  2001),  there  is  also  a  great 
deal  of  variability,  both  within  and  between  individuals,  in  the  patterns  of  respiration 
and  phonation  during  laughter  (W.  F.  Fry  and  Rader,  1977;  Svebak,  1975,  1977).  Thus, 
people  seem  to  have  distinctive  "laugh  signatures,"  making  their  laughs  as  recogniz- 
able as  their  voices.  However,  individuals  also  demonstrate  a  great  deal  of  variability 
in  their  laughter  acoustics  depending  in  part  on  their  current  emotional  state,  result- 
ing in  characteristic  fearful,  embarrassed,  aggressive,  and  other  emotionally  tinged 
laughs  in  addition  to  pure  enjoyment  laughs. 

Facial  Expressions  of  Laughter  and  Smiling 

Besides  the  loud  and  distinctive  "ha-ha-ha"  sounds,  laughter  is  characterized  by 
a  distinctive  facial  display,  which  closely  resembles  smiling.  This  emotional  facial 
display  is  another  way  laughter  serves  as  a  communication  signal.  Paul  Ekman  and  his 
colleagues,  at  the  University  of  California  at  San  Francisco,  have  conducted  extensive 
research  on  facial  expressions  of  emotion,  including  smiling  and  laughter  (Ekman, 
Davidson,  and  Friesen,  1990;  Ekman  and  Friesen,  1978;  Frank  and  Ekman,  1993). 
Although  they  have  identified  1 8  different  types  of  smiles,  Ekman  and  his  colleagues 
have  found  only  one  that  is  reliably  associated  with  genuine  enjoyment  or  amusement. 
They  have  named  this  smile  the  Duchenne  display,  after  the  French  anatomist  who  first 
identified  it  in  1 862 .  Other  types  of  smiles  are  associated  with  feigned  amusement 
("forced"  or  "faked"  smiles)  or  the  presence  of  negative  emotions  such  as  embarrass- 
ment or  anxiety  mixed  with  the  enjoyment. 

The  Duchenne  display  involves  symmetrical,  synchronous,  and  smooth  contrac- 
tions of  both  the  zygomatic  major  and  the  obicularis  oculi  muscles  of  the  face  (see  Figure 
4).  The  zygomatic  major  is  the  muscle  in  the  cheeks  that  pulls  the  lip  corners  upwards 
and  backwards,  while  the  obicularis  oculi  is  the  muscle  that  surrounds  each  eye  socket 
and  causes  wrinkling  of  the  skin  at  the  outer  sides  of  the  eyes  ("crow's  feet").  Although 
most  types  of  smiles  involve  contractions  of  the  zygomatic  major,  only  genuine  enjoy- 
ment smiles  also  involve  the  obicularis  oculi,  which  is  less  subject  to  voluntary  control. 
Smiles  that  involve  other  facial  muscles  besides  these  two  generally  indicate  the  pres- 
ence of  other  (often  negative)  emotions  besides  pure  enjoyment.  For  example,  con- 
tractions of  muscles  in  the  forehead  during  smiling  tend  to  be  associated  with  negative 
emotions  (S.  L.  Brown  and  Schwartz,  1980). 


FIGURE  4  The  Duchenne  display  expresses  genuine  mirth.  Note  the  "crow's  feet"  at 
outsides  of  eyes  due  to  contraction  of  obicularis  oculi  muscles.  ©  Barbara  Penoyar/Getty 

The  Duchenne  display  occurs  in  laughter  as  well  as  smiling,  although  laughter 
often  includes  some  additional  muscles,  such  as  those  involved  in  opening  the  mouth 
and  lowering  the  jaw  (Ruch  and  Ekman,  2001).  Thus,  the  presence  or  absence  of  the 
Duchenne  display  can  be  used  by  researchers  (as  well  as  any  careful  observer  in  social 
interactions)  to  determine  whether  a  person's  smiling  or  laughter  is  expressing 
genuine,  spontaneous  enjoyment  or  if  it  betrays  other  emotions  or  is  being  used  to 
feign  amusement.  In  particular,  the  presence  of  "crow's  feet"  wrinkles  along  the  out- 
sides  of  the  eyes  is  an  indicator  of  genuine  amusement. 

Ekman  and  Friesen  (1978)  have  developed  the  Facial  Action  Coding  System 
(FAGS)  for  use  by  trained  observers  to  code  the  various  facial  action  units  controlled 
by  different  muscles  of  the  face  in  the  expression  of  different  emotions.  Although  this 
system  requires  some  training  and  practice,  it  is  very  useful  for  researchers  who  are 
interested  in  studying  laughter,  as  it  provides  them  a  way  of  distinguishing  between 
Duchenne  and  non-Duchenne  laughter.  There  is  a  considerable  amount  of  research 
evidence  that  laughter  with  and  without  the  Duchenne  display  has  very  different  psy- 
chological meanings. 

Differences  between  Duchenne  and  nonDuchenne  laughter  were  demonstrated 
in  a  study  by  Dacher  Keltner  and  George  Bonanno  (1997)  at  the  University  of  Cali- 
fornia at  Berkeley.  They  videotaped  interviews  of  adults  whose  spouses  had  died  six 

6     •     THE     PSYCHOBIOLOGY    OF    HUMOR    AND    LAUGHTER 

months  previously,  and  used  the  FACS  to  code  the  laughter  produced  by  these  par- 
ticipants during  the  interviews.  Greater  frequencies  of  Duchenne  laughter  were  found 
to  be  significantly  correlated  with  more  positive  emotions  such  as  happiness  and  joy, 
and  less  negative  emotions  such  as  anger,  distress,  and  guilt.  The  amount  of  Duchenne 
laughter  was  also  positively  associated  with  better  social  adjustment,  recollections  of 
a  more  satisfactory  relationship  with  the  deceased  spouse,  and  better  current  rela- 
tionships with  others.  In  contrast,  non-Duchenne  laughter  was  not  related  to  any  of 
these  variables. 

The  videotapes,  with  the  sound  turned  off,  were  later  shown  to  college 
students  who  were  asked  to  rate  them  on  a  number  of  dimensions.  More  frequent 
Duchenne  laughter  in  the  bereaved  participants  was  significantly  correlated  with 
higher  self-ratings  of  positive  emotions  in  the  observers  themselves  and  with  the 
observers'  judgments  that  the  participant  was  healthier,  better  adjusted,  less  frustrated, 
and  more  amusing.  Thus,  subtle  differences  in  facial  expressions  during  laughter, 
signaling  the  presence  or  absence  of  the  Duchenne  display,  communicate  quite  dif- 
ferent emotional  states,  and  these  expressions  in  turn  influence  the  emotional 
responses  of  observers.  These  findings  further  highlight  the  role  of  laughter  as  a  form 
of  emotional  communication. 


Like  other  emotions,  the  emotion  of  mirth  that  is  expressed  by  laughter  also 
produces  changes  in  many  parts  of  the  body  via  the  autonomic  nervous  system  and 
the  endocrine  (hormone)  system  (Cacioppo  et  al.,  2000).  Since  the  1960s,  many 
researchers  have  investigated  mirth-related  changes  in  heart  rate,  skin  conductance, 
blood  pressure,  skin  temperature,  muscle  tension,  and  so  on.  In  these  studies,  partic- 
ipants are  attached  via  electrodes  and  sensors  to  polygraph  machines,  and  various  psy- 
chophysiological  variables  are  assessed  while  they  are  exposed  to  humorous  stimuli 
such  as  comedy  videotapes.  Control  conditions  involving  nonhumorous,  emotionally 
neutral  stimuli,  or  stimuli  that  elicit  other  emotions  (e.g.,  fear,  sadness,  anger),  are 
also  included  for  comparison.  Although  there  have  been  some  inconsistent  findings 
(e.g.,  Harrison  et  al.,  2000;  Hubert  and  de  Jong-Meyer,  1991),  the  results  of  these 
investigations  generally  indicate  that  mirth  is  associated  with  increased  activity  of  the 
sympathetic  nervous  system,  the  branch  of  the  autonomic  nervous  system  associated 
with  the  well-known  fight-or-flight  response  (see  McGhee,  1983b,  for  a  review  of 
early  research). 

Lennart  Levi  (1965)  found  significant  increases  in  adrenaline  and  noradrenaline 
output  (measured  in  urine  samples)  while  subjects  watched  a  comedy  film  as  com- 
pared to  watching  an  emotionally  neutral  nature  film,  and  these  humor-related 
increases  were  comparable  to  those  found  with  fear-  and  anger-evoking  films.  Other 
experiments  have  found  mirth-related  increases  in  heart  rate,  skin  conductance,  and 
other  variables  associated  with  sympathetic  arousal  (Averill,  1969;  P.  S.  Foster, 
Webster,  and  Williamson,  2002;  Godkewitsch,  1976;  Goldstein  et  al.,  1975;  Hubert 


and  de  Jong-Meyer,  1990;  J.  M.  Jones  and  Harris,  1971;  Langevin  and  Day,  1972; 
Marci,  Moran,  and  Orr,  2004).  These  effects  indicate  activation  of  the  sympathetic- 
adrenal-medullary  (SAM)  system,  the  well-known  fight-or-flight  response  of  sympa- 
thetic nervous  system  arousal  under  the  control  of  the  hypothalamus,  which  is  also 
involved  in  stress-related  emotional  responses  such  as  fear  and  anger.  In  several  of 
these  experiments,  the  participants  were  asked  to  rate  the  funniness  of  the  humor 
stimuli,  and  significant  positive  correlations  were  found  between  these  funniness 
ratings  and  the  amount  of  increase  in  physiological  arousal.  Thus,  higher  levels  of 
amusement  (which  presumably  indicate  stronger  feelings  of  mirth)  were  systemati- 
cally related  to  greater  increases  in  sympathetic  nervous  system  activation. 

In  addition  to  SAM  activation,  there  is  some  evidence  that  extended  periods  of 
mirth  are  associated  with  activation  of  the  hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical 
(HPA)  system,  the  classic  stress  response  that  causes  the  adrenal  cortex  to  release  cor- 
tisol  into  the  bloodstream.  Although  exposure  to  a  fairly  brief  (nine  minutes  duration) 
humorous  animated  cartoon  did  not  produce  an  increase  in  salivary  cortisol  levels 
(Hubert  and  de  Jong-Meyer,  1990),  a  longer  (90  minutes  duration)  and  arguably  more 
humorous  film  (a  Monty  Python  movie)  did  produce  significant  increases  in  cortisol 
compared  to  an  emotionally  neutral  nature  film  (Hubert  et  al.,  1993).  In  the  latter 
study,  50  percent  of  participants  showed  HPA  activation,  as  indicated  by  significantly 
increased  cortisol  levels  relative  to  baseline,  starting  about  one  hour  after  the  begin- 
ning of  the  comedy  film  and  continuing  for  one  hour  after  the  film  ended.  The  amount 
of  increase  in  cortisol  over  baseline  was  also  found  to  be  positively  correlated  with 
participants'  ratings  of  the  funniness  of  the  film,  indicating  that  the  more  amusing  the 
film  was  perceived  to  be  (and  therefore  the  more  mirth  experienced),  the  more  cor- 
tisol was  released. 

It  is  worth  noting  that  these  increases  in  physiological  arousal  are  likely  best 
viewed  as  a  function  of  the  emotion  of  mirth  rather  than  being  a  consequence  of 
laughter  per  se.  Significant  increases  in  heart  rate  and  skin  conductance  have  also  been 
found  when  a  mirthful  emotional  state  was  induced  by  having  research  participants 
vividly  remember  or  imagine  a  humorous  experience,  without  actually  laughing  (P.  S. 
Foster  et  al.,  2002).  In  addition,  the  observed  correlations  between  funniness  ratings 
and  changes  in  physiological  variables  support  the  view  that  the  degree  of  arousal  is 
related  to  subjective  feelings  of  amusement  rather  than  to  the  amount  of  laughter. 
Thus,  rather  than  laughter  causing  physiological  arousal,  it  seems  more  accurate  to 
view  both  laughter  and  peripheral  autonomic  arousal  as  being  relatively  independent 
(although  correlated)  consequences  of  the  emotional  state  of  mirth. 

Overall,  these  research  findings  indicate  that  mirth  is  associated  with  a  pattern  of 
increased  arousal  similar  to  the  fight-or-flight  response,  which  prepares  the  body  for 
vigorous  activity.  However,  there  is  also  some  evidence  for  the  common  notion  that 
mirth  causes  a  loss  of  muscle  tone.  With  vigorous  laughter,  people  often  feel  a  weak- 
ness in  their  limbs  and  occasionally  even  fall  to  the  floor,  and  the  expression  "weak 
with  laughter"  is  common  to  many  languages  (Overeem,  Lammers,  and  Van  Dijk, 
1999).  An  early  study  found  a  decrease  in  muscle  tone  in  the  forearm  of  subjects 
while  they  were  laughing  (Paskind,  1932).  More  recently,  Sebastiaan  Overeem  and  his 


colleagues  (1999)  examined  the  effects  of  mirth  on  the  //-reflex,  which  is  assessed  by 
electrically  stimulating  a  nerve  in  the  leg  and  using  electromyography  (EMG)  to 
measure  the  resultant  activation  of  an  adjacent  muscle.  The  strength  (amplitude)  of 
this  reflex  is  governed  by  descending  pathways  from  the  brain.  A  severe  reduction  in 
amplitude  is  indicative  of  motor  inhibition  or  muscle  weakness,  such  as  that  seen  in 
cases  of  cataplexy,  in  which  afflicted  individuals  suddenly  collapse  due  to  a  general  loss 
of  muscle  tone. 

In  their  study,  Overeem  and  colleagues  found  that  the  //-reflex  decreased  by 
almost  90  percent  while  individuals  were  laughing  in  response  to  humorous  slides.  A 
subsequent  study  demonstrated  that  this  effect  is  due  to  the  emotion  of  mirth  under- 
lying laughter,  rather  than  the  respiratory  or  motoric  effects  of  laughter  itself 
(Overeem  et  al.,  2004).  Thus,  there  appears  to  be  truth  to  the  idea  that  laughter  causes 
muscle  weakness,  although  it  seems  more  accurate  to  say  that  this  weakness  is  caused 
by  the  mirthful  emotion  underlying  laughter.  This  phenomenon  is  the  basis  of  theo- 
ries suggesting  that  laughter  is  a  "disabling  mechanism"  whose  function  is  to  prevent 
individuals  from  acting  in  counterproductive  ways  (Chafe,  1987),  as  well  as  sugges- 
tions that  humor  and  laughter  might  be  used  in  psychotherapy  as  a  relaxation  induc- 
tion technique  (Prerost  and  Ruma,  1987). 

It  may  seem  puzzling  that  the  positive  emotion  of  mirth  is  accompanied  by  the 
same  general  pattern  of  physiological  arousal  as  are  stress-related  negative  emotions 
like  fear  and  anger.  If  mirth  is  a  positive  emotion  that  is  presumably  beneficial  to 
health,  why  does  it  have  the  same  physiological  effects  as  stress-related  emotions  that 
are  known  to  be  injurious  to  health?  One  possible  explanation  for  these  findings  has 
to  do  with  the  hypothesis  that  the  positive  emotion  associated  with  laughter  origi- 
nated in  rough-and-tumble  play.  Just  as  many  systems  of  the  body  are  rapidly  mobi- 
lized for  the  exertion  of  either  fighting  or  fleeing  during  times  of  threat,  many  of  these 
same  systems  may  also  be  activated  for  the  exuberant,  exciting,  and  prosocial  chasing, 
fleeing,  jumping,  and  wrestling  of  mammalian  play.  It  should  also  be  noted  that  stress- 
related  illnesses  tend  to  result  from  chronic  activation  and  inadequate  recovery  from 
sympathetic  arousal  (Mayne,  2001).  The  more  phasic  short-term  arousal  associated 
with  mirth  is  therefore  less  likely  to  have  such  adverse  consequences. 

Moreover,  it  is  still  unclear  whether  the  physiological  arousal  associated  with 
mirth  is  identical  to  the  arousal  accompanying  negative  stress-related  emotions,  or 
whether  it  is  different  in  some  respects.  There  is  some  evidence  that  mirth  and  other 
positive  emotions  may  be  distinguished  from  negative  emotions  on  the  basis  of  the 
overall  pattern  of  physiological  changes  associated  with  them  (Christie  and  Friedman, 
2004;  Harrison  et  al.,  2000).  For  example,  positive  emotions,  compared  to  negative 
emotions,  seem  to  involve  a  smaller  increase  in  blood  pressure  and  less  autonomic 
activation  overall  (Cacioppo  et  al.,  2000).  However,  the  research  to  date  is  inconclu- 
sive, and  there  continues  to  be  some  controversy  concerning  the  "emotional  speci- 
ficity" of  autonomic  nervous  system  activity. 

Some  researchers  (e.g.,  Gray,  1994;  LeDoux,  1994)  have  also  pointed  out  that 
peripheral  changes  in  the  autonomic  nervous  system  and  endocrine  system  may  be 
the  wrong  place  to  look  for  physiological  differences  among  different  emotions,  since 


these  systems  have  to  do  with  functions  that  may  be  common  to  many  different  emo- 
tions, such  as  energy  requirements,  metabolism,  and  tissue  repair.  Instead,  they  have 
argued  that  more  important  differences  are  likely  to  be  found  in  the  brain  systems 
that  underlie  different  emotions.  Thus,  although  the  somatovisceral  changes  accom- 
panying mirth  may  be  quite  similar  to  those  associated  with  negative  emotions  like 
anger  and  fear,  there  are  likely  to  be  important  differences  in  the  brain  systems  under- 
lying these  emotions,  including  the  biochemical  molecules  (e.g.,  neuropeptides,  neu- 
rotransmitters,  opioids)  that  are  produced  (Panksepp,  1993,  1994).  These  in  turn  may 
have  different  implications  for  health,  such  as  different  effects  on  components  of  the 
immune  system  (Kennedy,  Glaser,  and  Kiecolt-Glaser,  1990).  This  is  an  important 
topic  for  future  investigation.  Potential  effects  of  humor  and  laughter  on  physical 
health  will  be  discussed  in  greater  detail  in  Chapter  10. 


Although  some  writers  have  suggested  that  humans  are  the  only  animal  that 
laughs  (e.g.,  Stearns,  1972),  there  is  good  reason  to  believe  that  homologous  behav- 
iors also  exist  in  other  animals,  particularly  our  closest  ape  relatives.  Charles  Darwin 
(1872),  who  viewed  laughter  as  an  expression  of  the  positive  emotions  of  joy  and  hap- 
piness, described  a  form  of  laughter  that  is  emitted  by  young  chimpanzees  when  they 
are  being  tickled.  This  observation  has  been  supported  by  more  recent  primate 
research,  which  suggests  that  laughter  in  humans  is  homologous  with  (i.e.,  has  the 
same  evolutionary  origin  as)  the  relaxed  open-mouth  display  or  "play  face"  seen  in 
monkeys  and  apes  (Preuschoft  and  van  Hooff,  1997;  van  Hooff,  1972;  van  Hooff  and 
Preuschoft,  2003). 

The  Play  Face 

Van  Hooff  and  Preuschoft  (2003,  p.  267)  described  this  facial  expression  as 

The  mouth  is  opened  wide  and  the  mouth  corners  may  be  slightly  retracted.  In  most  (but  not  all!) 
primate  species  the  lips  are  not  retracted  but  still  cover  the  teeth.  In  many  species  this  facial  posture 
is  often  accompanied  by  a  rhythmic  staccato  shallow  breathing  (play  chuckles)  and  by  vehement  but 
supple  body  movements.  The  posture  and  movements,  both  of  the  face  and  of  the  body  as  a  whole, 
lack  the  tension,  rigidity,  and  brusqueness  that  is  characteristic  of  expressions  of  aggression,  threat, 
and  fear. 

The  play  face,  as  the  name  suggests,  occurs  while  the  animals  are  involved  in  social 
play.  Play  is  a  common  activity  among  juveniles,  not  only  in  primates  but  in  all 
mammal  species  and  even  some  birds.  In  play,  many  activities  that  are  normally  impor- 
tant for  survival,  such  as  hunting,  fighting,  mating,  fleeing,  and  simple  locomotion 
(jumping,  sliding,  pirouetting),  are  performed  "just  for  fun,"  with  a  great  deal  of  exu- 
berance and  energy.  Young  primates  spend  many  hours  in  playful  mock  fighting, 

6     •     THE    PS  YCHOBIO  LOGY    OF    HUMOR    AND    LAUGHTER 

chasing,  attacking,  wrestling,  and  tickling  one  another,  perhaps  as  a  way  of  program- 
ming various  cortical  functions  and  developing  the  social  skills  needed  to  perform 
such  behaviors  in  more  "serious"  contexts  later  in  life  (Gervais  and  Wilson,  2005; 
Panksepp,  1998).  Since  many  of  these  behaviors  would  normally  be  construed  by  other 
individuals  as  aggressive  and  could  lead  to  serious  retaliation  and  physical  harm, 
animals  need  a  way  of  clearly  signaling  to  others  that  these  activities  are  not  serious, 
but  are  merely  intended  "for  fun."  In  primates,  this  communicative  signal  is  the  play 
face,  along  with  the  breathy,  panting  laughter-like  grunts  that  accompany  it  in  some 

It  is  interesting  to  note  that,  by  means  of  the  play  face,  animals  demonstrate  an 
ability  to  distinguish  between  reality  and  pretense,  seriousness  and  play,  which,  as  we 
have  seen  in  Chapters  1  and  5,  are  arguably  the  essence  of  humor.  Thus,  one  can  make 
the  case  that  a  rudimentary  form  of  humor — in  addition  to  laughter — is  evident  even 
in  nonhuman  animals.  Interestingly,  chimpanzees  and  gorillas  that  have  been  taught 
to  communicate  by  means  of  sign  language  have  been  observed  to  use  language  in 
playful  ways,  such  as  punning,  humorous  insults,  and  incongruous  word  use,  indicat- 
ing a  rudimentary  sense  of  humor  (see  Gamble,  2001,  for  a  review).  Moreover, 
this  humorous  use  of  sign  language  in  apes  is  typically  accompanied  by  the  play  face, 
providing  further  evidence  for  the  close  connection  between  linguistic  humor  and 

With  our  more  highly  developed  cognitive  and  linguistic  capacities,  we  humans 
are  able  to  extend  these  playful  behaviors  into  the  realm  of  concepts  and  ideas,  cre- 
ating nonserious,  playful  alternative  realities  that  we  share  with  one  another  through 
language.  Thus,  humor  in  humans  appears  to  have  originated  in  social  play,  an  ancient 
mammalian  emotion-behavior  complex.  Interestingly,  comparable  play  faces  occur  in 
many  other  mammals  besides  primates.  For  example,  the  canidae  (dogs,  wolves,  and 
foxes)  and  ursinae  (bears)  have  a  gape-mouthed  play  face  in  which  the  upper  teeth 
remain  covered,  which  is  accompanied  by  boisterous,  frolicsome  body  movements  and 
rapid  panting  that  is  very  reminiscent  of  the  play  panting  of  primates  (van  Hooff 
and  Preuschoft,  2003).  Thus,  the  evolutionary  origins  of  the  relaxed  open-mouth  play 
face,  which  in  humans  seems  to  have  evolved  into  laughter,  appear  to  go  back  many 
millions  of  years. 

Laughter  and  Smiling  in  Apes 

The  "laughter"  that  was  observed  by  Darwin  in  chimpanzees  is  a  staccato,  gut- 
tural, throaty  panting  sound  associated  with  rapid  and  shallow  breathing,  which  typ- 
ically accompanies  the  relaxed  open-mouth  play  face  display.  A  similar  pattern  is  seen 
in  many  other  primates,  including  gorillas,  orangutans,  and  macaques,  although  the 
vocalization  is  less  pronounced  in  some  species  (van  Hooff  and  Preuschoft,  2003).  A 
major  difference  between  the  laughter  of  humans  and  chimpanzees  is  that,  in  chim- 
panzee laughter,  the  breathing  involves  a  rapid  alternation  between  shallow  inhala- 
tions and  exhalations,  with  single  sounds  being  produced  during  each  inhalation  and 
exhalation.  In  contrast,  as  we  have  seen,  human  laughter  involves  a  series  of  multiple 


"ha-ha-ha"  sounds  occurring  during  a  single  exhalation,  with  no  vocalization  during 
the  intervening  inhalations.  Consequently,  chimpanzee  laughter  sounds  very  differ- 
ent from  that  of  humans  (Provine,  2000).  Thus,  although  the  two  forms  of  laughter 
appear  to  have  the  same  evolutionary  origins,  they  have  diverged  considerably  in  the 
6  million  or  so  years  since  our  common  ancestor  with  chimpanzees  (Gervais  and 
Wilson,  2005;  Owren  and  Bachorowski,  2001). 

Chimp  laughter  and  the  play  face  are  readily  elicited  during  playful  interactions 
between  human  caretakers  and  juvenile  chimpanzees  in  zoos.  As  with  human  infants, 
tickling  and  peek-a-boo  games  containing  an  element  of  surprise,  occurring  in  a 
relaxed  and  trusting  social  atmosphere,  are  particularly  effective  elicitors  of  laughter 
in  chimps.  Among  conspecifics  (i.e.,  members  of  the  same  species),  play  faces  and  the 
voiced  breathing  laughter  occur  during  boisterous  rough-and-tumble  play-wrestling 
and  play-chasing.  The  individuals  alternate  between  chasing  and  being  chased,  coor- 
dinating their  activities  by  means  of  these  play  signals  (van  Hooff  and  Preuschoft, 
2003).  It  is  easy  to  see  parallels  in  the  boisterous  laughter  of  human  children  during 
rough-and-tumble  play,  and  only  a  short  step  to  the  more  intellectually-based  play 
with  words  and  ideas  in  the  laughter-evoking  humor  of  human  adults. 

Although  the  play  face  and  laughter  in  primates  often  occur  in  the  context  of  play 
fighting  and  "quasi-aggression"  (Butovskaya  and  Kozintsev,  1996),  comparative 
research  does  not  support  the  view  that  laughter  originated  in  aggressive  displays  used 
to  intimidate  and  ridicule  adversaries  and  signal  one's  superiority  over  them  (cf. 
Gruner,  1997).  Instead,  the  research  tends  to  support  Darwin's  view  of  laughter  as  an 
original  expression  of  happiness,  joy,  and  high  spirits  associated  with  play  (van  Hooff 
and  Preuschoft,  2003).  Drawing  on  his  studies  of  the  neural  bases  of  play  in  labora- 
tory rats,  Panksepp  (1998)  provided  considerable  evidence  that  play  and  aggression 
are  mediated  by  different  brain  systems  (see  also  D.  P.  Fry,  2005). 

At  the  same  time,  though,  researchers  recognize  that  laughter,  like  play,  tends  to 
be  competitive  and  can  be  used  in  aggressive  ways.  Indeed,  Panksepp  (1998)  describes 
rough-and-tumble  play  in  all  mammal  species  as  "joyful  social  exchange  with  a  strong 
competitive  edge"  (p.  284).  During  bouts  of  play,  animals  frequently  pin  each  other 
down,  and  one  individual  often  emerges  as  the  more  dominant.  However,  for  the 
playful  interactions  to  continue,  this  individual  must  also  allow  the  less  dominant 
one  to  "win"  quite  frequently.  In  much  the  same  way,  teasing  and  other  forms  of 
verbal  play  in  humans  appear  to  be  ways  of  competing  in  a  friendly  way,  and  those 
who  tease  others  are  required  also  to  playfully  accept  the  teasing  directed  at  them  by 

Interestingly,  smiling  likely  has  a  somewhat  different  evolutionary  origin  than 
laughter  (van  Hooff  and  Preuschoft,  2003).  While  laughter  appears  to  be  related  to 
the  relaxed  open-mouth  display,  smiling  in  humans  seems  to  be  homologous  to 
another  facial  pattern,  the  silent  bared-teeth  display,  which  is  seen  in  primates  as  well 
as  many  other  species  of  mammals.  In  this  display,  the  animal  retracts  its  mouth 
corners  and  lifts  its  lips,  baring  its  teeth,  while  keeping  its  mouth  more  or  less  closed. 
When  shown  by  a  lower-status  individual,  this  display  is  a  signal  of  fearful  submis- 
sion and  appeasement;  in  a  higher-status  individual,  it  signals  friendly  reassurance  and 

6     •     THE     PSYCHOB  IOLOGY    OF    HUMOR    AND    LAUGHTER 

lack  of  hostile  intent.  Thus,  rather  than  simply  being  a  more  subdued,  low-intensity 
form  of  laughter,  smiling  seems  to  have  originated  in  a  different  signal  altogether. 
Functional  differences  between  smiling  and  laughter  are  still  apparent  to  some  degree 
in  humans,  with  smiling  occurring  more  often  than  laughter  in  nonhumorous  con- 
texts such  as  friendly  greeting,  signaling  of  appeasement,  and  embarrassment. 

Nonetheless,  smiling  and  laughter,  though  apparently  originating  in  different  dis- 
plays, seem  to  have  moved  quite  closely  together  in  humans,  to  the  point  where  they 
often  represent  different  degrees  of  intensity  of  the  same  emotional  state.  Thus,  a 
smile  may  be  an  expression  of  mild  amusement  in  response  to  a  joke,  whereas  a  laugh 
communicates  much  greater  enjoyment  (Ruch,  1993).  This  is  reflected  in  many  lan- 
guages, in  which  the  word  for  smile  is  a  diminutive  of  the  word  for  laughter  (e.g., 
French  sourire  and  rire),  I  will  return  to  the  discussion  of  possible  evolutionary  origins 
of  smiling  and  laughter  in  a  later  section. 

"Laughter"  in  Rats? 

Thus  far,  we  have  considered  evidence  that  the  origins  of  human  laughter  go  back 
at  least  as  far  as  the  evolutionary  ancestors  that  we  share  with  our  closest  living  rela- 
tive, the  chimpanzee,  and,  in  the  form  of  the  play  face,  even  to  the  common  ances- 
tors of  all  primates.  Recently,  biological  psychologist  Jaak  Panksepp  and  his  colleagues 
at  Bowling  Green  State  University  have  provided  intriguing  evidence  that  a  form  of 
laughter  may  even  exist  in  rats  (Panksepp,  2000;  Panksepp  and  Burgdorf,  2000,  2003). 
They  have  found  that  laboratory  rats  produce  a  high-frequency  (approximately 
50  kHz),  ultrasonic  chirping  sound  during  social  rough-and-tumble  play  and  also 
when  being  tickled  by  human  handlers.  Although  humans  are  unable  to  hear  these 
sounds  without  the  aid  of  specialized  sound  equipment,  they  are  within  the  auditory 
range  in  which  rats  communicate. 

Rats  seem  to  be  most  ticklish  on  the  nape  of  the  neck,  although  they  also  appar- 
ently enjoy  a  "full  body"  tickle.  When  they  have  previously  been  tickled  by  a  human 
hand,  they  will  eagerly  approach  that  hand  rather  than  one  that  has  merely  petted 
them,  chirping  all  the  while.  Like  laughter  among  humans,  this  rat  "laughter"  appears 
to  be  contagious,  and  young  rats  generally  prefer  to  spend  time  with  older  animals 
that  produce  more  of  this  chirping  sound  as  compared  to  those  that  do  not.  This 
chirping  "laughter"  is  also  readily  conditioned  using  both  classical  and  operant 
methods,  and  animals  will  run  mazes  and  press  levers  for  an  opportunity  to  be  tickled 
and  "laugh."  Rat  "laughter"  can  easily  be  amplified  or  reduced  by  selective  genetic 
breeding,  indicating  that  it  reflects  a  heritable  emotional  trait.  As  we  will  see  in  later 
chapters,  a  comparable  genetically  based  trait  in  humans  may  underlie  our  concept  of 
"sense  of  humor"  (Ruch  and  Carrell,  1998). 

Panksepp  and  Burgdorf  (2003)  have  suggested  that  this  chirping  "laughter"  arises 
from  organized  "ludic"  (from  Greek  ludos  =  play)  brain  circuits  that  form  the  "emo- 
tional operating  system"  for  the  positive  emotion  of  joy  (or  what  I  call  mirth),  which 
is  activated  during  social  play,  and  which  may  be  common  to  all  mammals.  They  pos- 
tulated that  play-related  joy  has  an  important  social  facilitation  and  bonding  function 


in  mammals,  promoting  cooperative  forms  of  social  engagement  and  helping 
to  organize  social  dynamics.  They  suggested  that  rough-and-tumble  play  in  rats, 
accompanied  by  chirping  "laughter,"  may  provide  a  useful  animal  model  for 
researchers  to  investigate  the  brain  structures  mediating  positive  emotions  relating  to 
play  and  laughter,  in  much  the  same  way  that  other  animal  models  have  been  used  to 
elucidate  the  brain  mechanisms  of  negative  emotions  such  as  fear  and  anger 
(Panksepp,  1998). 

Research  using  this  model  has  already  begun  to  shed  light  on  the  neural  bases  of 
positive  playful  emotion.  For  example,  this  research  suggests  an  important  role  of 
endorphins  and  other  opioids,  the  morphine-like  substances  created  in  certain  brain 
sites.  Low  doses  of  morphine  increase  play  in  rats,  whereas  the  opiate  antagonist 
naloxone  (which  inhibits  the  effect  of  opioids)  decreases  play  (Panksepp,  1998).  These 
findings  suggest  that  opioid  systems  may  also  be  involved  in  mirthful  humor  and 
laughter  in  humans.  Human  laughter  is  very  different  from  ultrasonic  chirping  in  rats, 
and  many  researchers  believe  it  is  too  much  of  a  stretch  to  view  the  two  as  having  any 
real  evolutionary  connection  (Gervais  and  Wilson,  2005).  Nonetheless,  they  may  both 
relate  to  homologous  brain  structures  found  in  all  mammals  which  have  an  important 
social-emotional  function  and  an  ancient  evolutionary  origin  relating  to  social  play. 
Thus,  these  animal  studies  suggest  that  the  feelings  of  hilarity  and  mirth  that  we  expe- 
rience in  humor  originated  in  the  exhilaration  and  joy  of  rough-and-tumble  social 
play  that  is  a  prominent  activity  of  all  mammals. 


Brain  disorders  involving  pathological  laughter  are  well  known  in  the  neurolog- 
ical literature,  and  numerous  cases  have  been  reported  since  the  late  1800s 
(Duchowny,  1983;  Forabosco,  1998;  Poeck,  1985).  The  study  of  pathological  laugh- 
ter, in  connection  with  knowledge  of  the  underlying  brain  abnormalities,  is  one  way 
that  neuroscientists  have  been  able  to  make  inferences  about  the  brain  sites  that  may 
be  involved  in  normal  laughter.  Although  pathological  laughter  closely  resembles 
natural  laughter,  it  is  considered  abnormal  because  of  the  presence  of  unusual  motor 
patterns,  or  a  lack  of  accompanying  pleasant  and  mirthful  emotional  experience,  or 
because  it  occurs  in  an  inappropriate  social  context  in  the  absence  of  humorous 

Duchowny  (1983)  distinguished  three  major  categories  of  pathological  laughter, 
each  of  which  has  different  clinical  manifestations  and  anatomical  substrates:  (1)  exces- 
sive laughter,  (2)  forced  laughter,  and  (3)  gelastic  epilepsy.  Excessive  laughter  condi- 
tions involve  emotional  lability,  heightened  feelings  of  mirth  and  euphoria,  an  inability 
to  inhibit  laughter,  and  a  lack  of  insight  into  the  abnormality  of  the  laughter.  These 
conditions  most  commonly  occur  in  adulthood  and  tend  to  be  associated  with  disor- 
ders such  as  schizophrenia,  mania,  and  dementia.  These  disorders  appear  to  affect 
parts  of  the  brain  involved  in  emotion  production  and  regulation,  including  structures 
in  the  limbic  system  and  parts  of  the  frontal  lobes. 

6     •     THE     PSYCHOB1OLOGY    OF    HUMOR    AND    LAUGHTER 

In  forced  laughter  conditions,  the  second  broad  category  of  pathological  laughter, 
patients  experience  involuntary  outbursts  of  explosive,  self-sustained  laughter,  often 
accompanied  by  autonomic  disturbances  of  heart  rate,  vasomotor  control,  and  sphinc- 
ter tone.  Although  they  may  appear  to  others  to  be  feeling  genuinely  amused,  these 
patients  usually  do  not  subjectively  experience  the  positive  emotion  of  mirth  that  nor- 
mally accompanies  laughter,  but  instead  often  experience  it  as  unpleasant,  embar- 
rassing, and  something  to  be  endured.  Many  patients  with  this  condition  also  exhibit 
pathological  crying,  with  fits  of  laughter  merging  into  crying  or  vice  versa.  It  is  occa- 
sionally even  difficult  to  tell  whether  they  are  laughing  or  crying.  This  indicates  that 
some  of  the  brain  centers  controlling  laughter  and  crying  are  located  very  close 
together  (likely  in  the  part  of  the  brainstem  called  the  pons),  suggesting  a  close  link 
between  the  positive  emotions  of  social  play  and  the  distressing  emotions  associated 
with  social  separation  (Panksepp,  1998). 

Conditions  involving  forced  laughter  typically  begin  in  adulthood  and  can  result 
from  a  variety  of  disorders,  including  degenerative  brain  conditions  such  as  Parkin- 
son's disease,  multiple  sclerosis  (MS),  and  amyotrophic  lateral  sclerosis  (ALS),  as  well 
as  tumors  and  lesions  in  various  parts  of  the  brain  due  to  cerebrovascular  accidents 
(strokes)  and  brain  injury.  In  the  condition  called  fou  rire  prodromique,  uncontrolled 
laughter  lasting  up  to  a  half  hour  or  even  longer  signals  the  onset  of  a  stroke  in  the 
brainstem.  In  some  tragic  cases,  people  have  literally  laughed  themselves  to  death. 
Pathological  "forced  laughter"  conditions  have  been  associated  with  lesions  in  many 
areas  of  the  brain,  ranging  from  the  frontal  and  temporal  lobes  of  the  cortex  and  the 
pyramidal  tracts  to  the  ventral  mesencephalon,  the  cerebellum,  and  the  pons  (Wild 
et  al.,  2003;  Zeilig  et  al.,  1996).  In  most  of  these  cases,  the  effect  of  the  lesions  seems 
to  be  chronic  disinhibition  of  laughter-generating  circuitry  (i.e.,  an  inability  to  inhibit 
or  modulate  laughter  normally),  rather  than  an  excitatory  effect. 

The  third  general  category  of  pathological  laughter,  gelastic  epilepsy  (from  Greek 
gelos  =  laughter)  involves  relatively  rare  epileptic  conditions  in  which  the  seizures  pre- 
dominantly take  the  form  of  bouts  of  laughter.  These  seizures  are  often  accompanied 
by  motor  convulsions,  eye  movement  abnormalities,  and  autonomic  disturbances. 
During  the  seizures,  patients  typically  (but  not  always)  lose  consciousness  and  are 
therefore  unaware  of  the  laugh  attack.  In  cases  in  which  the  patients  remain  conscious 
during  the  seizure,  some  report  a  pleasant  feeling  of  mirth,  but  others  experience  the 
laughter  as  inappropriate  and  even  unpleasant.  The  laughter  typically  lasts  less  than 
a  minute,  but  can  be  more  prolonged  when  associated  with  complex  partial  seizures 
(Arroyo  et  al.,  1993).  Gelastic  epilepsy  usually  begins  in  childhood,  and  cases  have 
even  been  reported  in  newborn  infants,  demonstrating  that  the  neural  circuits  for 
laughter  are  fully  developed  at  birth  (Sher  and  Brown,  1976). 

Brain-imaging  studies  have  identified  several  brain  regions  that  are  associated 
with  gelastic  seizures,  most  importantly  the  hypothalamus,  temporal  lobes,  and  medial 
frontal  lobe  (Arroyo  et  al.,  1993).  The  most  common  type  of  gelastic  epilepsy,  which 
has  also  been  studied  most  extensively,  is  associated  with  hypothalamic  hamartomas, 
which  consist  of  nonmalignant  abnormal  tissue  growth  in  the  hypothalamus.  Research 
has  shown  that  hypothalamic  and  pituitary  hormones  are  released  during  these 


seizures,  and  it  appears  that  the  abnormal  hypothalamic  electrical  activity  has  excita- 
tory effects,  spreading  to  areas  in  the  neighboring  limbic  system  and  also  to  the  brain- 
stem  to  produce  the  psychophysiological  manifestations  of  laughter  (Wild  et  al., 
2003).  These  findings  suggest  that  the  hypothalamus  likely  has  an  important  role  in 
normal  laughter  as  well.  As  noted  earlier,  the  hypothalamus  is  well-known  as  a  control 
center  for  the  autonomic  arousal  associated  with  the  fight-flight  response,  as  well  as 
regulating  a  range  of  motivational  states  including  hunger  and  sexual  arousal  (as  psy- 
chology professors  frequently  explain  to  their  students,  the  hypothalamus  is  respon- 
sible for  the  four  u/'s":  feeding,  fighting,  fleeing,  and  sexual  intercourse). 


Studies  of  patients  with  brain  lesions  demonstrate  that  there  are  two  separate 
pathways  in  the  brain  that  can  lead  to  the  production  of  smiling  and  laughter,  one 
voluntary  and  unemotional,  and  the  other  involuntary  and  emotional.  Some  patients 
who  have  suffered  a  stroke  or  other  brain  injury,  causing  them  to  be  unable  to  vol- 
untarily move  their  facial  muscles  (volitional  facial  paresis),  are  nonetheless  able  to 
smile  and  laugh  normally  when  they  find  something  funny  (i.e.,  when  they  experience 
the  emotion  of  mirth).  On  the  other  hand,  some  patients  with  lesions  of  subcortical 
nuclei  in  regions  such  as  the  basal  ganglia  (as  in  Parkinson's  disease)  are  unable  to 
show  spontaneous,  emotional  facial  expressions  when  they  are  subjectively  feeling 
amused,  but  are  able  to  smile  voluntarily  on  command  (Wild  et  al.,  2003). 

The  voluntary  facial  movements  likely  originate  in  the  motor  strip  on  the  cere- 
bral cortex  and  arrive  quite  directly  at  the  face  via  the  corticospinal  tracts  of  the 
pyramidal  motor  system,  whereas  the  involuntary,  emotional  movements  arise  from 
subcortical  nuclei  and  arrive  at  the  face  via  the  extrapyramidal  system,  involving  many 
emotion-related  regions  in  the  basal  ganglia,  limbic  system,  and  brainstem  (Frank  and 
Ekman,  1993).  There  is  also  evidence  that  voluntary  control  of  laughter  is  mediated 
by  ventral  areas  of  the  mesencephalon  and  pons,  whereas  emotional  control  involves 
dorsal  areas  of  these  same  structures  (Wild  et  al.,  2003).  These  findings  help  to  explain 
the  differences  in  facial  expressions  associated  with  genuine  (Duchenne)  and  feigned 
(non-Duchenne)  smiling  and  laughter,  discussed  earlier. 

Further  evidence  for  separate  neural  substrates  of  emotional  and  voluntary 
smiling  and  laughter  was  provided  by  a  recent  study  that  made  use  of  positron  emis- 
sion tomography  (PET),  a  brain-imaging  technique  (Iwase  et  al.,  2002).  The  brains 
of  healthy  participants  were  scanned  while  they  were  smiling,  either  spontaneously  in 
response  to  humorous  videotapes  or  voluntarily  while  watching  nonhumorous  video- 
tapes. The  results  showed  different  patterns  of  regional  cerebral  blood  flow  (rCBF) 
during  the  two  different  types  of  facial  expression.  In  particular,  emotional  smiling 
led  to  greater  activation  of  areas  of  the  cortex  involved  in  the  processing  and  inte- 
gration of  visual  information  (bilateral  occipital  and  occipitotemporal  cortices  and  left 
anterior  temporal  cortex),  as  well  as  cortical  areas  that  are  closely  related  to  the  limbic 
system  and  are  involved  in  emotional  reward  (ventromedial  orbitofrontal  cortex  and 

6     •     THE     PSYCHOB1OLOGY    OF    HUMOR    AND    LAUGHTER 

medial  prefrontal  cortex).  In  contrast,  nonemotional  voluntary  facial  movements 
mimicking  smiling  led  to  greater  activation  of  areas  of  the  frontal  cortex  involved  in 
voluntary  facial  movement  (facial  area  of  the  left  primary  motor  strip  and  bilateral 
supplementary  motor  area). 

In  addition  to  evidence  that  different  brain  circuits  are  involved  in  voluntary  and 
emotional  forms  of  smiling  and  laughter,  there  is  also  evidence  from  cases  involving 
electrical  brain  stimulation  that  the  cognitive  aspects  of  humor  can  be  dissociated  from 
the  emotional  and  motoric  components.  When  patients  are  undergoing  brain  surgery 
for  treatment  of  epileptic  seizures,  surgeons  commonly  electrically  stimulate  various 
areas  of  the  exposed  surface  of  the  brain,  in  order  to  localize  areas  that  should  and 
should  not  be  removed.  The  patients  remain  conscious  during  this  procedure.  These 
electrical  probes  occasionally  trigger  laughter  in  the  patients,  with  or  without  accom- 
panying feelings  of  mirth. 

As  one  example,  Fried  and  colleagues  (1998)  described  a  16-year-old  female 
patient  who  consistently  began  to  laugh  whenever  her  brain  was  stimulated  in  a  small 
region  of  the  supplementary  motor  area  located  on  the  left  frontal  lobe  of  the  cortex. 
The  laughter  was  accompanied  by  subjective  feelings  of  merriment  and  mirth  in  the 
patient.  Interestingly,  each  time  she  laughed  due  to  electrical  stimulation,  the  patient 
attributed  her  laughter  to  various  stimuli  in  her  environment.  For  example,  she  would 
say  that  she  had  laughed  because  of  the  funny  appearance  of  a  picture  of  a  horse  that 
she  happened  to  be  looking  at,  or  because  the  people  in  the  room  seemed  to  be  behav- 
ing in  an  amusing  way.  It  is  important  to  note  that  this  patient's  epilepsy  never  involved 
gelastic  seizures. 

Although  the  exact  brain  mechanisms  are  not  fully  understood,  this  remarkable 
case  provides  evidence  of  the  way  cognitive  components  of  humor  can  be  dissociated 
from  the  emotional  and  motor  components  of  mirth  and  laughter.  In  our  normal  expe- 
rience, higher-level  cognitive  processes  involved  in  the  perception  of  humorous 
incongruity  cause  stimulation  of  the  limbic  and  brainstem  regions  involved  in  the 
experience  of  mirth  and  production  of  laughter,  but  when  those  same  mirthful  feel- 
ings and  laughter  behaviors  are  triggered  artificially  with  an  electrical  probe,  the  brain 
generates  cognitive-perceptual  incongruities  to  try  to  account  for  these  emotional 

Based  on  evidence  from  cases  of  pathological  laughter,  electrical  brain  stimula- 
tion, and  animal  studies,  neuroscientists  are  beginning  to  piece  together  the  circuits 
of  the  brain  that  are  involved  in  the  positive  emotion  of  mirth  and  the  production 
of  laughter,  although  many  of  the  details  are  still  unknown  (Arroyo  et  al.,  1993; 
MacLean,  1987;  Parvizi  et  al.,  2001;  Wild  et  al.,  2003).  As  with  other  emotional 
systems  (Panksepp,  1998),  the  structures  and  systems  underlying  laughter  and  mirth 
are  distributed  throughout  the  brain,  including  regions  in  the  neocortex,  basal  ganglia, 
diencephalon,  limbic  system,  and  brainstem. 

Parvizi  and  colleagues  (2001)  distinguished  between  emotion  induction  and 
emotion  effector  sites  involved  in  mirth  and  laughter.  Normal  emotional  laughter  is 
initiated  by  perceptions  of  humorous  incongruity  or  the  recall  of  humorous  memo- 
ries, involving  association  areas  of  the  cerebral  cortex.  These  activate  various  emotion 
induction  sites  located  in  the  telencephalon  (cerebral  cortex  and  limbic  system),  which 


are  involved  in  "turning  on"  the  emotion  of  mirth,  and  likely  include  areas  of  the  ven- 
tromedial  prefrontal  cortex,  basal  temporal  cortex,  anterior  cingulate  cortex,  amyg- 
dala, and  ventral  striatum  (part  of  the  basal  ganglia).  I  will  discuss  these  brain  bases 
of  cognitive  and  emotional  aspects  of  humor  in  more  detail  in  a  later  section  describ- 
ing neuroimaging  studies. 

When  activated,  the  induction  sites  work  on  emotion  effector  (expression)  sites, 
including  the  motor  and  premotor  areas  of  the  cerebral  cortex  (initiating  facial  and 
bodily  movements),  the  hypothalamus  (subserving  autonomic  responses  such  as 
increased  heart  rate  and  flushing),  thalamus,  periaqueductal  gray  matter,  reticular  for- 
mation, cranial  nerve  nuclei  (controlling  facial,  laryngeal,  and  respiratory  actions),  and 
parts  of  the  brainstem,  all  of  which  are  involved  in  smiling  and  laughter  as  the  expres- 
sion of  mirth.  Most  authors  agree  that  there  is  likely  a  final  common  pathway  for 
laughter  located  in  the  brainstem  (possibly  in  the  dorsal  area  of  the  pons)  that  coor- 
dinates the  respiratory,  laryngeal,  and  facial  components  of  laughter  (Wild  et  al., 
2003).  Laughter  is  triggered  at  this  site  by  input  from  the  various  effector  sites,  and 
signals  are  sent  out  from  here  to  the  cranial  nerves  to  activate  the  relevant  muscles  of 
the  body. 

In  addition  to  excitatory  input  triggering  laughter,  inhibitory  signals  arriving  in 
the  brainstem  from  various  higher  centers  in  the  brain  serve  to  inhibit  inappropriate 
laughter.  Most  researchers  believe  that  the  "forced  laughter"  type  of  pathological 
laughter  described  earlier  is  due  to  damage  involving  the  corticobulbar  tract,  a  motor 
pathway  originating  in  the  frontal  cortex  and  terminating  in  cranial  motor  nuclei  in 
the  pons  and  medulla,  which  results  in  a  failure  of  these  laughter-inhibition  mecha- 
nisms (Mendez,  Nakawatase,  and  Brown,  1999).  Parvizi  and  colleagues  (2001)  have 
also  hypothesized  a  possible  role  of  the  cerebellum  in  modulating  the  intensity  and 
duration  of  laughter.  According  to  this  view,  the  cerebellum  receives  information  con- 
cerning the  current  social-emotional  context  from  the  cortex  and  telencephalic  struc- 
tures and  feeds  this  information  back  to  various  effector  sites. 

In  this  way,  laughter  may  be  inhibited  or  amplified,  depending  on  its  appropri- 
ateness to  the  social  and  emotional  situation  (e.g.,  whether  one  is  at  a  party  or  a 
funeral).  However,  when  a  stroke  or  other  disease  causes  lesions  to  specific  regions  of 
the  cerebellum  or  to  the  relevant  structures  and  pathways  leading  into  or  out  of  it, 
this  modulation  does  not  take  place,  resulting  in  pathological  laughter  occurring  in 
socially  and  emotionally  inappropriate  contexts  (Parvizi  et  al.,  2001).  In  sum,  although 
further  research  is  needed  to  clarify  the  exact  brain  sites  and  pathways  involved,  it  is 
clear  that  laughter  is  a  complex  activity  involving  cognition,  emotion,  and  motoric 
behavior,  and  requiring  the  coordinated  activation  of  a  wide  range  of  brain  regions, 
including  parts  of  the  cerebral  cortex,  the  limbic  system,  and  the  brainstem. 


Why  do  we  laugh  in  response  to  being  tickled?  Why  is  it  impossible  to  tickle 
oneself?  As  we  have  seen,  many  juvenile  animals  tickle  each  other  during  play, 
and  tickling  frequently  stimulates  laughter  in  human  children  and  adults,  as  well  as 

6     •     THE     PS  YCHO  B  IO  LOGY    OF    HUMOR    AND    LAUGHTER 

chimpanzees  and  other  primates,  and  possibly  even  rats  (Panksepp  and  Burgdorf, 
2000).  Provine  (2004)  suggested  that  the  pleasurable,  reciprocal  give-and-take  of  tick- 
ling may  be  viewed  as  a  prototype  of  mammalian  social  play.  The  laughter  associated 
with  tickling  appears  to  be  accompanied  by  a  pleasurable  feeling  of  mirth  similar  to 
the  emotion  accompanying  laughter  when  it  is  elicited  by  humor.  However,  tickling 
can  also  be  quite  aversive,  and  it  was  reportedly  even  used  as  a  form  of  torture  in 
medieval  times.  The  social  context  is  also  important:  tickling  only  produces  laughter 
in  a  safe  and  trusting  environment  (Harris,  1999). 

Tickling  and  its  curious  relationship  to  humor  and  laughter  raise  a  number  of 
intriguing  questions  that  have  been  pondered  by  philosophers  since  the  time  of 
Socrates  and  Aristotle.  Although  the  first  survey  study  of  tickling  and  laughter  was 
conducted  more  than  100  years  ago  (Hall  and  Allin,  1897),  more  systematic  empiri- 
cal investigations  of  tickling  have  only  begun  quite  recently. 

Jaak  Panksepp  (2000)  has  argued  that  the  merriment  and  laughter  associated  with 
tickling  involve  the  same  emotional  brain  regions  as  humor-elicited  laughter.  Hence, 
he  suggested  that  the  study  of  brain  processes  involved  in  tickling-related  "laughter" 
in  rats  can  tell  us  a  good  deal  about  the  neural  bases  of  humor  and  laughter  in  humans. 
This  view  is  similar  to  the  one  proposed  much  earlier  by  Charles  Darwin  (1872),  who 
suggested  that  tickling  is  essentially  a  humorous  experience,  eliciting  laughter  via 
the  same  emotional  mechanisms  as  those  involved  in  humor.  In  other  words,  both 
humor  and  tickling  elicit  the  emotion  of  mirth,  which  in  turn  is  expressed  through 
laughter.  Since  a  similar  idea  was  proposed  at  about  the  same  time  by  a  German 
physiologist  named  Hecker,  this  view  has  come  to  be  known  as  the  Darwin-Hecker 

The  current  research  evidence  regarding  this  hypothesis  is  somewhat  mixed, 
however.  Alan  Fridlund  and  Jennifer  Loftis  (1990),  at  the  University  of  California  in 
Santa  Barbara,  found  some  support  for  the  hypothesis  in  a  questionnaire  study  that 
showed  that  the  more  individuals  reported  being  very  ticklish,  the  more  they  also 
reported  that  they  tend  to  laugh,  giggle,  and  smile  in  response  to  jokes  and  other 
forms  of  humor.  Similarly,  Christine  Harris  and  Nicholas  Christenfeld  (1997),  at  the 
University  of  California  in  San  Diego,  found  a  positive  correlation  between  the  degree 
to  which  participants  were  actually  observed  to  laugh  and  smile  while  they  were  being 
tickled  in  the  laboratory,  and  how  much  they  laughed  in  response  to  a  comedy  film. 
Both  these  studies  indicate  that  people  who  are  more  ticklish  also  tend  to  laugh  more 
in  response  to  humor,  suggesting  a  close  relationship  between  tickling  and  humor  as 
elicitors  of  laughter,  and  thus  providing  support  for  the  Darwin-Hecker  Hypothesis. 

However,  a  second  part  of  the  study  by  Harris  and  Christenfeld  failed  to  support 
the  prediction  that  tickling  and  humor  would  have  a  "warm-up  effect"  on  each  other. 
Participants  were  no  more  likely  to  laugh  in  response  to  being  tickled  after  having 
seen  a  comedy  film  than  after  watching  a  nonhumorous  control  film.  Similarly,  par- 
ticipants laughed  the  same  amount  in  response  to  a  comedy  film  regardless  of  whether 
or  not  they  had  previously  been  tickled.  These  results  appear  to  cast  doubt  on  the 
idea  that  tickling  and  laughter  both  elicit  the  same  positive  emotion  of  mirth.  If  this 
were  the  case,  then  when  this  emotion  is  elicited  by  means  of  tickling,  it  should  sub- 


sequently  lead  to  greater  laughter  in  response  to  humor,  and  vice  versa.  The  authors 
concluded  that,  although  there  seem  to  be  relatively  stable  individual  differences  in 
people's  threshold  for  laughter  regardless  of  whether  it  occurs  in  response  to  tickling 
or  to  humor,  the  two  types  of  laughter  do  not  share  a  common  emotional  basis. 

A  more  recent  experiment  by  Christine  Harris  and  Nancy  Alvarado  (2005)  casts 
further  doubt  on  the  Darwin-Hecker  Hypothesis.  They  used  the  FAGS  to  analyze  the 
facial  expressions  of  participants  who  were  laughing  and  smiling  while  being  tickled, 
and  compared  them  with  facial  expressions  of  the  same  individuals  while  listening  to 
a  comedy  audiotape  and  while  experiencing  the  pain  of  having  their  hand  immersed 
in  ice-cold  water.  Both  tickling  and  comedy  were  associated  with  Duchenne  smiles 
and  laughter,  whereas  these  expressions  did  not  occur  during  pain.  However,  tickling 
was  also  associated  with  a  greater  proportion  of  non-Duchenne  smiles  along  with  a 
number  of  facial  movements  indicating  negative  emotions  and  distress,  which  were 
not  seen  in  the  comedy  condition  but  were  evident  in  the  pain  condition.  The  par- 
ticipants also  reported  lower  levels  of  amusement  and  higher  levels  of  unpleasant  feel- 
ings, anxiety,  and  embarrassment  in  the  tickling  condition  compared  to  the  comedy 
condition.  Furthermore,  Duchenne  smiles  were  correlated  with  self-reported  unpleas- 
ant feelings  as  well  as  positive  feelings  in  the  tickling  condition,  but  only  with  posi- 
tive feelings  in  the  comedy  condition.  Overall,  these  results  suggested  that  the 
laughter  elicited  by  tickling  is  not  as  purely  pleasant  and  enjoyable  as  that  elicited  by 

The  results  of  the  latter  two  studies  cast  doubt  on  the  Darwin-Hecker  Hypoth- 
esis that  humor  and  tickling  both  produce  the  same  emotion  of  mirth,  which  is 
expressed  through  laughter.  The  authors  suggested  that,  whereas  humor-elicited 
laughter  is  mediated  by  a  pleasant  emotional  state,  laughter  in  response  to  tickling  is 
a  more  reflexlike,  nonemotional  response.  If  these  conclusions  are  correct,  then  they 
cast  doubt  on  views  that  posit  a  close  connection  among  tickling,  mirth,  and  humor, 
including  Panksepp's  (2000)  suggestion  that  tickling-elicited  "laughter"  in  rats  can  be 
used  as  an  animal  model  to  study  mirth.  This  issue  requires  further  investigation, 
perhaps  using  brain-imaging  techniques  to  compare  the  brain  areas  activated  by 
tickling  and  humor. 

Why  are  we  unable  to  tickle  ourselves?  Since  the  same  cutaneous  stimulation  is 
experienced  very  differently  depending  on  whether  it  is  produced  by  the  self  or  by 
another  person,  there  must  be  some  mechanism  whereby  the  brain  distinguishes 
between  these  two  sources  of  stimulation,  canceling  the  ticklish  effect  when  it  is  self- 
produced.  As  Provine  (2004)  noted,  in  the  absence  of  such  a  mechanism,  people  might 
be  constantly  tickling  themselves  accidentally!  One  study  used  fMRI  to  examine  dif- 
ferences in  brain  activity  when  participants  tickled  themselves  on  the  hand  compared 
to  when  the  tickling  was  done  by  an  experimenter  (Blakemore,  Wolpert,  and  Frith, 
1998).  The  results  showed  lower  activity  in  the  cerebellum  when  the  tickling  was  self- 
produced  rather  than  externally  produced,  suggesting  that  the  differentiation  may  take 
place  in  this  structure  of  the  hindbrain.  As  we  saw  earlier,  the  cerebellum  has  also 
been  implicated  in  the  modulation  of  laughter  based  on  information  about  the  social 
context  (Parvizi  et  al.,  2001). 

6     •     THE     PSYCHOBIOLOGY    OF    HUMOR    AND    LAUGHTER 

Although  we  cannot  tickle  ourselves,  there  is  some  evidence  that  it  may  be  pos- 
sible to  be  tickled  by  a  nonhuman  machine.  Harris  and  Christenfeld  (1999)  led  blind- 
folded participants  to  believe  that  they  would  be  tickled  either  by  a  "tickle  machine" 
or  by  a  human  hand,  although  in  both  conditions  they  were  actually  tickled  in  the 
same  way  by  a  research  assistant.  The  results  showed  that  the  subjects  laughed  just  as 
much  when  they  believed  they  were  being  tickled  by  a  machine  as  when  they  thought 
they  were  being  tickled  by  a  person.  Thus,  laughter  elicited  by  tickling  does  not  seem 
to  be  dependent  on  the  belief  that  it  is  being  done  by  a  human  being. 

Although  this  research  has  begun  to  address  the  interesting  phenomena  of 
tickling  and  laughter,  there  are  still  many  questions  that  await  further  investigation. 
In  particular,  further  study  of  the  brain  areas  involved  in  tickling  versus  humor 
should  help  to  answer  the  question  of  whether  tickling  elicits  the  same  pleasurable 
emotion  as  that  produced  by  humor  (as  suggested  by  Panksepp,  2000),  or  whether  it 
is  emotionally  quite  distinct  from  humor  (as  suggested  by  Harris,  1999).  Further 
investigations  may  also  provide  some  clues  to  the  evolutionary  functions  of  ticklish 
laughter.  Did  ticklishness  evolve  (as  some  theorists  have  suggested)  as  a  means  of 
motivating  individuals  to  develop  combat  skills  to  protect  certain  vulnerable  areas  of 
the  body  from  attack  (Gregory,  1924;  Harris,  1999)?  Or  is  it  a  way  of  facilitating  social 
bonding  in  the  context  of  joyful  play,  as  others  have  proposed  (Panksepp,  2000; 
Provine,  2004)? 


So  far  in  this  chapter,  I  have  been  focusing  particularly  on  laughter  and  the 
emotion  of  mirth  that  it  expresses.  In  this  section  I  will  turn  to  research  on  the  neural 
underpinnings  of  the  cognitive  component  of  humor.  If  we  think  of  the  cognitive 
processes  involved  in  humor  (discussed  in  Chapter  4)  as  the  "software"  or  "mental 
programs,"  here  I  am  discussing  the  "hardware,"  the  brain  structures  and  circuits  in 
which  these  programs  "run."  Our  understanding  of  the  brain  bases  of  humor  comes 
from  several  lines  of  research,  including  neuropsychological  studies  of  deficits  in 
humor  comprehension  observed  in  patients  with  brain  damage,  EEG  studies  of  brain- 
wave activity  during  humor  processing  in  normal  individuals,  and,  more  recently, 
neuroimaging  studies  using  fMRI  to  identify  the  brain  regions  that  are  activated  when 
people  are  exposed  to  humorous  stimuli. 

Humor  and  Brain  Injury 

Clinical  observations  of  patients  with  right  hemisphere  damage  (RHD)  resulting 
from  strokes  or  other  injury  to  the  brain  have  long  suggested  that  the  right  hemi- 
sphere likely  plays  an  important  role  in  the  processing  of  humor.  Although  these 
patients  typically  have  normal  linguistic  abilities,  they  often  (but  not  always)  display 
marked  changes  in  their  personality,  engaging  in  socially  inappropriate  behavior, 
making  humorous  but  often  crude  or  offensive  comments,  and  laughing  inappropri- 


ately  (Brownell  and  Gardner,  1988).  They  are  also  often  impaired  in  understanding 
the  discourse  and  behavior  of  others,  failing  to  understand  jokes  told  by  other  people, 
and  missing  the  main  point  of  a  story.  Although  they  understand  the  details  of  a  story, 
they  seem  to  be  unable  to  piece  them  together  into  a  coherent  interpretation.  In  addi- 
tion, they  often  have  difficulty  extracting  inferences  and  nuances  from  communica- 
tion, misunderstanding  sarcasm  and  indirect  requests. 

In  contrast,  patients  with  unilateral  left  hemisphere  damage  (LHD)  typically  do 
not  show  the  same  personality  changes  and  inappropriate  social  behavior.  Although 
they  are  often  aphasic  (i.e.,  they  have  marked  language  impairment  due  to  the  fact 
that  language  functions  are  located  in  the  left  hemisphere  in  right-handed  people), 
they  typically  display  a  normal  level  of  social  awareness  and  understanding.  In  addi- 
tion, to  the  extent  allowed  by  their  linguistic  impairments,  they  are  usually  able  to 
extract  the  main  point  of  a  story  or  conversation,  to  draw  inferences,  and  to  combine 
elements  of  a  story  into  a  coherent  whole.  These  clinical  observations  suggest  that 
RHD  patients  may  have  particular  difficulty  in  understanding  and  appreciating  at  least 
some  forms  of  humor. 

Amy  Bihrle  and  her  colleagues  at  the  Boston  University  School  of  Medicine  con- 
ducted a  study  in  which  they  compared  RHD  and  LHD  patients  in  their  ability  to 
comprehend  humor  (Bihrle,  Brownell,  and  Powelson,  1986).  Due  to  the  language 
impairments  common  in  LHD  patients,  it  was  important  to  use  nonverbal  humor 
stimuli  to  ensure  that  any  differences  between  the  groups  were  not  simply  due  to  dif- 
ferences in  language  abilities.  Accordingly,  the  humor  stimuli  used  in  the  experiment 
were  a  series  of  captionless  comic  strips,  each  containing  four  picture  panels  forming 
a  narrative,  with  the  final  picture  introducing  a  humorous  ending  much  like  the  punch 
line  of  a  verbal  joke.  The  participants  were  presented  with  the  first  three  panels  of 
each  comic  strip  and  were  instructed  to  select  which  of  two  alternative  pictures  would 
make  the  funniest  ending.  In  each  case,  one  of  the  alternatives  was  the  original, 
humorous  "punch  line"  picture,  whereas  the  other  (less  humorous)  alternative  varied 
in  the  degree  to  which  it  contained  incongruity  (surprising  elements)  and  resolution 
(coherence  with  the  preceding  narrative).  By  examining  the  types  of  alternatives  that 
were  chosen  incorrectly  by  the  participants,  the  researchers  could  identify  particular 
components  of  humor  comprehension  with  which  they  had  difficulties. 

Overall,  RHD  patients  performed  significantly  more  poorly  than  did  LHD 
patients  in  selecting  the  correct  joke  ending,  suggesting  a  particularly  important  role 
of  the  right  hemisphere  in  humor  comprehension.  More  specifically,  RHD  patients 
were  found  to  be  much  more  likely  than  LHD  patients  to  select  incorrect  endings 
that  contained  an  incongruous  non  sequitur  but  that  did  not  show  coherence  with  the 
earlier  part  of  the  narrative.  In  other  words,  these  incorrect  endings  contained  incon- 
gruity without  resolution.  For  example,  instead  of  the  correct,  funny  ending,  they 
would  often  select  a  slapstick  ending  (e.g.,  a  picture  of  someone  slipping  on  a  banana 
peel)  that  did  not  have  any  relevance  to  the  story.  Thus,  they  seemed  to  be  aware  that 
humor  involves  some  sort  of  incongruity  (and  often  some  element  of  aggression),  and 
were  able  to  recognize  the  presence  of  incongruity,  but  they  had  difficulty  identify- 
ing which  incongruous  endings  made  most  sense  in  relation  to  the  rest  of  the  story. 

6     •     THE     PSYCHOBIOLOGY    OF    HUMOR    AND    LAUGHTER 

This  lack  of  relevance  or  coherence  may  account  for  the  clinical  observation  that 
RHD  patients  often  engage  in  silly,  socially  inappropriate  forms  of  humor  (i.e.,  humor 
that  is  not  relevant  to  the  social  situation).  On  the  other  hand,  when  LHD  patients 
made  errors,  they  were  more  likely  than  RHD  patients  to  choose  incorrect 
endings  that  did  not  contain  any  incongruity,  but  simply  provided  an  ordinary, 
unsurprising  completion  to  the  story.  Thus,  they  had  some  difficulty  in  recognizing 

In  a  second  part  of  their  study,  which  examined  only  the  RHD  patients,  Bihrle 
and  her  colleagues  (1986)  employed  a  similar  methodology  using  verbal  jokes  instead 
of  visual  cartoons  as  humor  stimuli,  to  determine  whether  a  similar  pattern  of  deficits 
would  be  found  with  verbal  humor.  The  results  closely  replicated  the  findings  with 
the  nonverbal  humor,  with  RHD  patients  frequently  selecting  incorrect  joke  punch 
lines  that  contained  incongruity  (often  of  a  slapstick  nature)  but  no  coherence  or  res- 
olution. Similar  findings  were  also  obtained  in  other  studies  by  Brownell  et  al.  (1983) 
and  by  Wapner  et  al.  (1981).  Overall,  these  results  suggested  that  the  left  hemisphere 
of  the  brain  plays  a  role  in  perceiving  incongruity,  whereas  the  right  hemisphere 
is  important  for  making  coherent  sense  of  (i.e.,  resolving)  the  incongruity  within 
the  social  context  (Bihrle,  Brownell,  and  Gardner,  1988;  Gillikin  and  Derks,  1991; 
McGhee,  1983b). 

More  recent  research  suggests  that  part  of  the  difficulty  of  RHD  patients  in  com- 
prehending humor  may  have  to  do  with  deficits  in  "theory  of  mind,"  which  is  the 
ability  to  attribute  beliefs  and  intentions  to  other  people  in  order  to  explain  or  predict 
their  behavior  (Brownell  and  Stringfellow,  2000).  Francesca  Happe,  Hiram  Brownell, 
and  Ellen  Winner  (1999)  tested  humor  comprehension  in  groups  of  RHD  and  LHD 
patients  and  non-brain-damaged  control  participants  using  nonverbal  cartoons  that 
either  did  or  did  not  require  a  sophisticated  theory  of  mind  in  order  to  understand 
and  appreciate  the  humor  fully.  In  the  theory  of  mind  cartoons,  the  humor  depended 
on  what  a  character  mistakenly  thought  or  did  not  know.  For  example,  in  one  cartoon 
a  man  is  playing  a  guitar  and  singing  on  a  balcony  of  a  high-rise  apartment  building, 
while  two  women,  one  on  the  balcony  above  him  and  the  other  on  the  balcony  below, 
are  listening  with  rapt  attention,  each  apparently  thinking  that  he  is  serenading  her. 
To  understand  the  joke,  one  must  be  able  to  recognize  differences  in  the  knowledge 
of  each  of  the  characters. 

Participants  were  presented  with  pairs  of  cartoons,  each  pair  comprising  an  orig- 
inal humorous  cartoon  and  a  modified  version  in  which  the  key  humorous  element 
was  replaced,  and  were  asked  to  choose  which  of  the  two  was  funnier.  The  results 
indicated  that  RHD  patients,  as  compared  with  both  the  LHD  patients  and  normal 
control  subjects,  showed  significantly  more  errors  in  identifying  the  humorous  car- 
toons involving  theory  of  mind,  but  did  not  differ  in  their  ability  to  identify  the  car- 
toons that  did  not  require  theory  of  mind.  In  contrast,  LHD  patients  did  not  differ 
from  non-brain-damaged  controls  on  either  type  of  cartoon. 

Brownell  and  Stringfellow  (2000)  suggested  that  deficits  in  theory  of  mind,  which 
have  also  been  found  in  RHD  patients  in  other  research,  may  account  for  the  pattern 
of  humor  comprehension  deficits  that  were  found  in  these  patients  in  previous 


research.  In  particular,  they  speculated  that  the  resolution  of  humor  (i.e.,  the  ability 
to  "make  sense"  of  incongruity),  which  has  been  found  to  be  the  aspect  of  humor  in 
which  RHD  patients  have  particular  difficulty,  often  depends  on  a  theory  of  mind. 
Impairments  in  theory  of  mind,  which  is  very  important  for  appropriate  social  and 
emotional  functioning,  may  also  help  to  account  for  the  socially  inappropriate  forms 
of  humor  often  observed  in  these  patients.  Further  research  is  needed  to  explore  these 
hypotheses  more  fully  (see  also  Lyons  and  Fitzgerald,  2004,  for  a  discussion  of  humor 
in  autism  and  Asperger  syndrome,  which  are  thought  to  involve  deficits  in  theory  of 

Although  previous  research  indicated  an  important  role  of  the  right  hemisphere 
in  humor  comprehension,  a  study  by  Prathiba  Shammi  and  Donald  Stuss  (1999),  at 
the  University  of  Toronto,  indicated  that  it  is  the  right  frontal  lobe  in  particular  that 
seems  to  be  most  important.  They  tested  patients  with  single  focal  brain  damage 
restricted  to  the  frontal  (right,  left,  or  bilateral)  or  nonfrontal  (right  or  left)  brain 
regions  as  well  as  age-matched  normal  controls.  The  participants  were  given  several 
humor  tests  to  assess  various  aspects  of  humor  comprehension  and  appreciation, 
including  both  verbal  and  nonverbal  forms  of  humor.  In  general,  similar  deficits  in 
humor  comprehension  that  were  previously  found  in  RHD  patients  were  found  in 
this  study,  but  only  for  patients  with  right  frontal  lobe  damage.  In  addition,  the 
patients  with  right  frontal  lesions  reacted  with  less  emotional  responsiveness  (smiling 
and  laughter)  to  all  the  humorous  materials  as  compared  to  those  with  lesions  in  other 
brain  areas. 

The  authors  noted  that  the  frontal  lobes,  and  particularly  the  right  frontal  lobe, 
appear  to  be  especially  involved  in  the  integration  of  cognition  and  emotion,  due  to 
their  connections  to  the  limbic  system  as  well  as  many  other  cortical  regions.  In  addi- 
tion to  the  integration  of  cognition  and  emotion,  the  frontal  lobes  have  been  shown 
to  play  a  crucial  role  in  a  number  of  cognitive  functions  that  are  likely  important  for 
humor  comprehension,  including  narrative  discourse,  abstract  and  nonliteral  inter- 
pretation, working  memory,  problem  solving,  and  indirect  forms  of  communication 
such  as  irony,  affective  intonation,  and  sarcasm. 

EEC  Studies 

In  addition  to  studying  deficits  in  humor  comprehension  in  patients  with  brain 
damage,  researchers  have  investigated  the  brain  areas  involved  in  humor  in  healthy 
subjects  using  EEG  techniques,  in  which  the  electrical  activity  of  the  brain  is  meas- 
ured by  means  of  electrodes  attached  to  the  scalp.  To  determine  whether  the  left  or 
right  hemisphere  is  more  active  in  humor,  Sven  Svebak  (1982),  then  at  the  Univer- 
sity of  Bergen  in  Norway,  measured  the  amount  of  discordant  alpha  wave  activity 
occurring  at  sites  on  the  right  and  left  occipital  lobes  of  subjects  while  they  watched 
a  comedy  film.  Those  who  laughed  while  watching  the  film  (and  therefore  presum- 
ably found  it  highly  amusing)  showed  less  discordant  right-left  alpha  activity  than  did 
those  who  did  not  laugh,  suggesting  coordinated  activity  of  both  hemispheres  during 

6     •     THE     PSYCHOBIOLOGY    OF    HUMOR    AND    LAUGHTER 

To  test  whether  this  finding  was  simply  due  to  respiratory  effects  of  laughter 
(perhaps  causing  differences  in  blood  oxygen  levels),  a  second  study  included  condi- 
tions in  which  subjects  were  instructed  to  hyperventilate  and  hypoventilate,  as  well  as 
humorous  and  nonhumorous  film  conditions.  The  results  replicated  the  first  study 
and  also  demonstrated  that  the  greater  concordance  in  alpha  activity  across  the  hemi- 
spheres associated  with  laughter  was  not  simply  caused  by  laughter-related  changes 
in  respiration.  Overall,  then,  these  studies  suggested  that  both  hemispheres  of  the 
brain  work  together  in  a  coordinated  manner  during  humor  and  mirth  rather  than 
one  hemisphere  being  more  active  than  the  other. 

In  another  EEG  study  of  humor,  Peter  Derks  and  colleagues,  at  the  National 
Aeronautics  and  Space  Administration,  examined  event-related  potentials  (ERPs) 
associated  with  joke  comprehension  and  appreciation  (Derks  et  al.,  1997).  ERPs  are 
spikes  in  positively  or  negatively  polarized  brain  wave  activity  occurring  at  very  brief 
intervals  after  an  event,  and  have  been  found  to  indicate  different  types  of  informa- 
tion processing.  Using  2 1  EEG  electrodes  at  various  locations  on  the  scalp,  brain  wave 
activity  was  monitored  while  participants  were  presented  with  a  series  of  verbal  jokes 
on  a  computer  screen.  Electromyographic  (EMG)  recordings  were  also  taken  on  the 
zygomatic  muscle  of  the  face  to  detect  the  presence  or  absence  of  smiling  and  laugh- 
ter, indicating  whether  or  not  each  joke  was  found  amusing  by  the  subject. 

The  results  showed  that  all  of  the  jokes,  regardless  of  whether  or  not  smiling  or 
laughter  occurred,  produced  an  increase  in  positive  polarization  of  brain  waves 
with  peak  amplitude  about  300  milliseconds  (P300)  following  presentation  of  the 
punch  line.  In  addition,  for  the  jokes  that  were  associated  with  zygomatic  muscle 
activity,  this  was  followed  by  a  negative  polarization  with  peak  amplitude  at  about 
400  milliseconds  (N400).  In  contrast,  this  N400  wave  did  not  occur  after  jokes  that 
did  not  elicit  zygomatic  activity,  and  were  therefore  presumably  not  found  to  be 

Previous  research  has  shown  that  P300  waves  indicate  the  cognitive  activity  of 
categorization,  whereas  N400  waves  occur  when  categorization  is  disrupted  due  to  an 
incongruous  or  unexpected  element,  resulting  in  an  extension  of  the  categorization 
process.  In  terms  of  the  schema  concepts  discussed  in  Chapter  4,  P300  following  a 
joke  can  be  viewed  as  indicating  the  activation  of  a  schema  to  make  sense  of  the  infor- 
mation in  the  joke,  whereas  N400  indicates  the  disruption  of  this  process  and 
the  search  for  an  alternative  schema  due  to  the  detection  of  an  incongruity  ("frame- 
shifting").  The  fact  that  the  N400  wave  only  occurred  with  jokes  that  were  found  to 
be  amusing  suggests  that  these  were  the  jokes  that  triggered  the  activation  of  an  alter- 
nate schema  (corresponding  to  the  "resolution"  stage  in  two-stage  theories  of  humor). 
As  noted  in  Chapter  4,  the  simultaneous  activation  of  two  or  more  incompatible 
schemas  seems  to  be  the  hallmark  of  humor.  Thus,  this  study  provided  EEG  evidence 
that  corresponds  quite  well  to  the  schema-based  cognitive  research  discussed  previ- 
ously. In  addition,  consistent  with  the  findings  of  Svebak  (1982),  this  study  found 
similar  levels  of  activity  in  both  hemispheres  of  the  brain,  suggesting  that  both  hemi- 
spheres are  involved  in  humor  processing. 


A  more  recent  EEG  study  by  Seana  Coulson  and  Marta  Kutas  (2001),  at  the  Uni- 
versity of  California  at  San  Diego,  found  the  N400  wave  following  the  presentation 
of  humorous  sentences  but  not  nonhumorous  sentences,  replicating  the  finding  of 
Derks  and  colleagues  (although  the  results  were  somewhat  less  consistent).  Although 
this  study  also  found  evidence  of  a  positively  polarized  wave,  this  occurred  at  500  to 
700  milliseconds,  considerably  later  than  that  observed  in  the  study  by  Derks  and  col- 
leagues. In  addition,  subjects  who  showed  a  high  level  of  joke  comprehension  revealed 
simultaneous  positive  and  negative  waves  in  different  brain  regions  during  this  time 

These  authors  interpreted  the  positive  polarities  as  reflecting  the  surprise  com- 
ponent of  joke  processing  and  the  negative  polarities  as  indicating  the  frame-shifting 
needed  to  reestablish  coherence.  They  argued  that  the  fact  that  these  occurred  during 
the  same  time  period  indicates  that  the  surprise  and  coherence  components  of  humor 
comprehension  occur  simultaneously  in  different  brain  regions,  rather  than  following 
the  temporally  sequential  pattern  suggested  by  two-stage  incongruity-resolution 
models  of  humor  (e.g.,  Suls,  1972).  In  summary,  although  there  were  some  differences 
between  these  two  studies,  both  seem  to  provide  evidence  of  positive  and  negative 
polarity  ERPs  corresponding  to  incongruity  and  resolution  components  of  humor 

Brain-Imaging  Studies 

Recent  advances  in  neuroimaging  techniques  such  as  fMRI  have  enabled 
researchers  to  study  the  brain  regions  involved  in  a  wide  range  of  psychological 
processes  in  normal  individuals.  fMRI  uses  high-powered,  rapidly  oscillating  magnetic 
fields  to  scan  the  brain  and  detect  small  changes  in  blood  oxygenation  levels  (which 
are  indicative  of  changes  in  neuronal  activity)  in  specific  regions  of  the  brain.  Several 
recent  studies  have  employed  this  method  to  investigate  humor.  These  investigations 
have  begun  to  map  out  the  areas  in  the  cortex  involved  in  the  cognitive  comprehen- 
sion of  humor  as  well  as  subcortical  areas  in  the  limbic  system  underlying  the  emo- 
tional response  of  mirth. 

In  a  study  conducted  at  University  College  London,  MRI  was  used  to  scan  the 
brains  of  participants  while  they  listened  to  riddles  containing  either  phonological 
jokes  (simple  puns  based  on  word  sounds)  or  semantic  jokes  (containing  more  complex 
incongruities  based  on  semantic  meaning),  as  well  as  a  set  of  nonhumorous  control 
riddles  (Goel  and  Dolan,  2001).  After  each  item,  the  subjects  were  instructed  to  indi- 
cate, by  pressing  a  key,  whether  or  not  they  found  it  amusing,  and  after  the  scan  they 
reviewed  the  jokes  and  rated  them  for  funniness.  Analyses  of  the  brain  areas  that  were 
differentially  activated  by  the  two  different  types  of  jokes  indicated  that  somewhat  dif- 
ferent networks  were  involved.  In  particular,  the  semantic  jokes  induced  greater  acti- 
vation in  regions  of  both  the  left  and  right  temporal  lobes  that  are  involved  in  semantic 
processing  of  language.  In  contrast,  the  phonological  jokes  induced  greater  activation 
in  areas  of  the  left  frontal  lobe  that  have  been  implicated  in  the  processing  of  speech 

6     •     THE     PSYCHOBIOLOGY    OF    HUMOR    AND    LAUGHTER 

sounds,  which  have  particular  relevance  in  puns.  Thus,  different  brain  areas  appear 
to  be  involved  in  the  cognitive  processing  of  different  types  of  humor. 

Besides  these  cognitive  processes,  this  study  also  examined  emotional  components 
of  humor  by  identifying  brain  areas  that  were  differentially  activated  in  response  to 
jokes  that  were  rated  as  funny,  as  compared  to  those  rated  as  unfunny.  Funniness 
ratings  presumably  reflect  the  degree  to  which  each  stimulus  elicited  mirth  in  the  par- 
ticipants. These  analyses  revealed  that,  regardless  of  joke  type,  funnier  jokes  were 
associated  with  significantly  greater  activation  of  the  medial  ventral  prefrontal  cortex, 
an  area  at  the  front  of  the  brain  with  connections  to  the  limbic  system  that  plays  an 
important  role  in  integrating  cognitive  and  emotional  processes.  This  was  one  of  the 
areas  that  was  also  found  to  be  activated  during  emotional,  as  opposed  to  voluntary, 
laughter  in  the  study  by  Iwase  and  colleagues  (2002)  discussed  previously. 

Another  fMRI  study,  conducted  at  Stanford  University,  found  further  evidence 
for  the  involvement  of  emotion-related  brain  centers  in  humor,  particularly  the  well- 
known  mesolimbic  reward  centers  (Mobbs  et  al.,  2003).  While  being  scanned  in  an 
MRI  machine,  participants  viewed,  in  random  order,  42  humorous  cartoons  and  42 
nonhumorous  control  cartoons  in  which  the  humorous  elements  had  been  removed. 
The  data  were  analyzed  to  identify  the  brain  regions  that  were  differentially  activated 
in  response  to  humorous  versus  nonhumorous  cartoons.  Several  of  the  regions  that 
showed  greater  activation  to  humorous  cartoons  were  in  the  left  hemisphere  of  the 
cerebral  cortex,  presumably  involving  cognitive  processing  of  humorous  information. 
These  included:  (1)  an  area  at  the  junction  of  the  left  temporal  and  occipital  lobes 
(which  was  suggested  by  the  authors  to  be  important  in  the  perception  of  incongru- 
ous or  surprising  elements  of  humor);  (2)  an  area  of  the  left  frontal  lobe  including 
Broca's  area  (which  is  involved  in  semantic  processing  and  integrating  language  and 
long-term  memory,  and  may  therefore  be  important  for  the  perception  of  coherence 
or  resolution  of  incongruity);  and  (3)  the  supplementary  motor  area  of  the  left  frontal 
lobe  (presumably  reflecting  motor  aspects  of  expressive  smiling  and  laughter).  The 
latter  area  is  the  one  found  by  Fried  and  colleagues  (1998)  to  produce  mirthful  laugh- 
ter when  electrically  stimulated  during  surgery. 

In  addition  to  these  cortical  areas,  this  study  found  that  humorous  as  compared 
to  nonhumorous  cartoons  also  produced  significantly  greater  activation  in  several  sub- 
cortical  regions,  including  the  anterior  thalamus,  ventral  striatum,  nucleus  accumbens, 
ventral  tegmental  area,  hypothalamus,  and  amygdala  (Figure  5).  These  regions  form 
the  core  of  the  so-called  mesolimbic  reward  network,  a  well-researched  system  that 
employs  dopamine  as  the  major  neurotransmitter,  and  which  is  implicated  in  a  variety 
of  pleasurable,  emotionally  rewarding  activities,  including  ingestion  of  mood-altering 
drugs  like  heroin  and  alcohol,  eating,  sexual  activity,  listening  to  enjoyable  music, 
looking  at  photographs  of  attractive  faces,  and  playing  video  games  (for  a  review,  see 
Schultz,  2002).  Thus,  at  a  neurological  level,  the  positive  emotion  elicited  by  humor 
appears  to  be  closely  related  to  the  pleasurable  feelings  associated  with  these  other 
activities.  Of  particular  interest  was  the  finding  of  a  significant  positive  correlation 
between  the  funniness  ratings  of  individual  cartoons  and  the  degree  of  activation  of 
the  nucleus  accumbens,  which  has  consistently  been  shown  to  be  important  in  psy- 



Motor  Area 
















FIGURE  5     Brain  regions  involved  in  cognitive  and  emotional  components  of  humor  and 

chologically  and  pharmacologically  driven  rewards,  suggesting  that  this  structure  is 
particularly  important  in  the  pleasurable  emotion  associated  with  humor. 

These  patterns  of  cortical  and  subcortical  regions  activated  by  humorous  versus 
nonhumorous  cartoons  were  replicated  in  three  subsequent  investigations,  two  by  the 
same  team  of  researchers  at  Stanford  University  (Azim  et  al.,  2005;  Mobbs  et  al., 
2005),  and  one  by  researchers  at  the  California  Institute  of  Technology  (K.  K.  Watson, 
Matthews,  and  Allman,  in  press).  One  of  these  studies  also  examined  sex  differences 
in  brain  responses  to  humor  (Azim  et  al.,  2005).  Although  women  and  men  showed 
similar  overall  patterns  of  brain  activity,  women  revealed  greater  activation  in  the  left 
prefrontal  cortex  and  in  the  mesolimbic  regions  including  the  nucleus  accumbens, 
suggesting  that  they  enjoyed  the  cartoons  more.  Another  of  these  studies  examined 
correlations  between  personality  traits  and  brain  activation  in  response  to  humor 
(Mobbs  et  al.,  2005).  Participants  with  lower  scores  on  a  measure  of  neuroticism  were 
found  to  have  higher  levels  of  activation  in  the  mesolimbic  reward  circuitry,  includ- 
ing the  nucleus  accumbens,  suggesting  that  humor  induces  a  stronger  pleasure 
response  in  more  emotionally  stable  individuals.  There  was  also  greater  humor-related 
brain  activation  in  extraverted  as  compared  to  introverted  participants,  indicating  a 
greater  responsiveness  to  humor  in  these  individuals  as  well.  These  findings  suggest 
a  biological  basis  to  correlations  that  have  been  found  between  these  personality  traits 
and  various  measures  of  sense  of  humor,  which  I  will  discuss  in  greater  detail  in 
Chapter  7. 

J4  6     •     THE     PSYCHOBIOLOGY    OF    HUMOR    AND    LAUGHTER 

Taken  together,  these  brain-imaging  studies  provide  intriguing  evidence  con- 
cerning the  regions  of  the  cerebral  cortex  that  are  involved  in  the  cognitive  process- 
ing of  various  types  of  humor,  as  well  as  the  cortical  and  subcortical  (limbic)  regions 
mediating  the  pleasurable  emotion  of  mirth  that  is  induced  by  the  perception  of 
humor.  Although  the  studies  of  humor  in  patients  with  brain  lesions  seem  to  suggest 
a  particularly  important  role  of  the  right  hemisphere,  the  brain-imaging  research  (like 
the  EEG  studies)  indicates  that  humor  involves  coordinated  activities  of  many  regions 
in  both  hemispheres.  As  noted  earlier,  the  brain  lesion  findings  implicating  right  hemi- 
sphere involvement  in  humor  may  reflect  a  particular  role  of  that  hemisphere  in  social 
comprehension  skills,  such  as  theory  of  mind,  which  are  important  for  understanding 
humor  within  its  social  context.  The  brain-imaging  studies  suggest  that  the  left  hemi- 
sphere is  also  very  much  involved  in  processing  other  aspects  of  humor. 

In  addition  to  research  investigating  brain  regions  involved  in  the  comprehen- 
sion and  enjoyment  of  jokes,  some  fMRI  studies  have  looked  at  the  brain  areas  that 
are  activated  by  the  sound  of  laughter.  As  we  saw  in  the  Chapter  5,  Provine  (2000) 
suggested  that  the  contagiousness  of  laughter  might  be  due  to  a  hypothetical  center 
in  the  brain  that  responds  selectively  to  the  distinct  sounds  of  laughter,  inducing  feel- 
ings of  mirth  and  causing  the  listener  to  laugh  in  turn.  Gervais  and  Wilson  (2005) 
suggested  that  this  laughter-response  center  may  consist  of  specialized  mirror 
neurons,  a  type  of  neuron  that  is  active  not  only  when  the  individual  is  performing  a 
particular  behavior  but  also  when  observing  someone  else  perform  the  same  behav- 
ior (Rizzolatti  and  Craighero,  2004).  Research  has  shown  that  certain  mirror  neurons 
also  respond  to  the  perception  of  emotions  in  others,  inducing  an  empathic  response 
in  the  observer. 

An  fMRI  study  by  Kerstin  Sander  and  Henning  Scheich  (2001)  found  that  lis- 
tening both  to  laughter  and  to  crying  elicited  strong  activation  in  the  amygdala,  part 
of  the  limbic  system  which,  as  we  have  seen,  is  an  important  center  of  emotion  pro- 
cessing that  is  activated  by  humor.  A  more  recent  fMRI  investigation  compared  the 
brain  areas  that  were  active  when  participants  listened  either  to  laughter,  speech,  or 
nonvocal  sounds  (M.  Meyer  et  al.,  2005).  While  both  speech  and  laughter  produced 
activation  in  auditory  processing  regions  of  the  temporal  lobes,  the  activation  was 
stronger  in  the  right  hemisphere  with  laughter  and  in  the  left  hemisphere  with  speech. 
Thus,  the  right  hemisphere  may  be  more  strongly  involved  in  responses  to  laughter 
if  not  to  humor.  This  study  also  found  that  hearing  laughter  activated  a  section  of  the 
motor  area  in  the  right  frontal  lobe  that  has  previously  been  implicated  in  the  vocal 
expression  of  laughter,  providing  further  evidence  for  a  close  link  between  laughter 
reception  and  expression  mechanisms.  Further  research  is  needed  to  determine 
whether  any  of  these  areas  can  be  identified  as  the  laughter-mirroring  center  hypoth- 
esized by  Provine  (2000)  and  by  Gervais  and  Wilson  (2005). 

Although  only  a  small  number  of  fMRI  investigations  of  humor  and  laughter  have 
been  conducted  as  yet,  they  are  beginning  to  provide  intriguing  information  about 
how  the  brain  responds  to  humor.  It  is  important  to  note,  though,  that  the  confined 
space  of  an  MRI  machine  does  not  permit  researchers  to  study  events  in  the  brain 
associated  with  the  creation  and  perception  of  spontaneous  forms  of  humor  occur- 


ring  in  naturalistic  social  interactions,  and  this  research  is  therefore  limited  to  the 
comprehension  and  enjoyment  of  jokes  and  cartoons  and  responses  to  recorded  laugh- 
ter. There  are  also  some  discrepancies  in  findings  across  these  studies,  likely  due  to 
differences  in  the  types  of  humor  stimuli  and  experimental  paradigms  that  were  used. 
Despite  the  limitations  of  the  methodology,  there  is  still  much  more  to  learn  with  this 
approach,  and  this  will  likely  continue  to  be  an  exciting  area  of  research  in  coming 


Several  lines  of  evidence  indicate  that  humor,  mirth,  and  laughter  are  likely  a 
product  of  natural  selection  (Gervais  and  Wilson,  2005;  Weisfeld,  1993).  Humor  and 
laughter  are  universal  in  the  human  species,  and  laughter  as  an  expression  of  mirth 
emerges  early  in  life.  Infants  begin  to  laugh  in  response  to  social  stimuli  by  around 
four  months  of  age,  and  cases  of  gelastic  epilepsy  in  newborns  indicate  that  the  mech- 
anisms for  laughter  are  present  at  birth  (Sher  and  Brown,  1976).  Additional  evidence 
that  laughter  is  an  innate  behavior  pattern,  rather  than  being  learned  through  imita- 
tion, comes  from  the  fact  that  children  who  are  born  blind  and  deaf  laugh  normally 
(Goodenough,  1932).  As  we  have  seen,  the  evidence  from  studies  of  pathological 
laughter,  brain  lesion  studies,  and  brain-imaging  research  all  suggest  that  there  are 
specific  neural  circuits  for  humor,  mirth,  and  laughter.  Moreover,  the  evidence  of 
laughter  and  play-related  positive  emotion  in  other  animals  further  attests  to  their 
evolutionary  origins. 

The  animal  research  discussed  earlier  indicates  that  humor  and  laughter  in 
humans  likely  originated  in  social  play.  Thus,  the  adaptive  functions  of  humor  are 
likely  closely  linked  to  the  functions  of  play  more  generally.  Many  theorists  have  sug- 
gested that  the  evolutionary  benefits  of  play  have  to  do  with  facilitating  the  develop- 
ment of  various  adaptive  skills  (Bateson,  2005;  Panksepp,  1998).  For  example,  some 
have  suggested  that  play  helps  individuals  learn  competitive  and  noncompetitive  social 
skills,  such  as  behaviors  that  facilitate  social  bonding  and  cooperation  or  those  that 
promote  social  rank,  leadership,  and  communication.  Others  have  suggested  nonso- 
cial  functions  of  play,  such  as  increasing  physical  fitness,  cognitive  abilities,  and  cre- 
ativity (P.  K.  Smith,  1982).  Panksepp  (1998)  summarized  research  showing  that  adult 
rats  that  have  been  deprived  of  play  during  the  juvenile  period,  as  compared  to  those 
that  have  abundant  play  experience,  are  less  effective  in  competitive  encounters,  are 
less  valued  as  social  partners  by  others,  are  more  fearful  in  social  situations,  and  have 
decrements  in  certain  problem-solving  abilities. 

With  the  evolution  of  an  enlarged  cerebral  cortex  and  increased  capacity  for  lan- 
guage, abstract  thinking,  self-awareness,  theory  of  mind,  and  so  on,  humans  have 
extended  the  functions  of  play,  mirth,  and  laughter  by  developing  the  ability  to  play 
with  ideas,  words,  and  alternative  realities  by  means  of  the  ludic  mental  activity  of 
humor  (Caron,  2002).  Glenn  Weisfeld  (1993)  proposed  an  evolutionary  theory  of  the 
adaptive  functions  of  humor  that  emphasizes  its  continuity  with  play.  Just  as  physical 


play  in  animals  seems  to  provide  them  the  opportunity  to  practice  competitive  and 
noncompetitive  social  and  physical  survival  skills  in  a  nonthreatening  context,  humor, 
in  this  theory,  is  a  means  for  humans  to  playfully  practice  important  skills  relating  to 
social  cognition  and  interpersonal  behavior.  Through  humorous  anecdotes,  teasing, 
joking,  and  wordplay,  humans  are  able  to  safely  probe  sensitive  social  issues  concern- 
ing such  topics  as  sexuality,  aggression,  and  social  status;  engage  in  playful  competi- 
tion; explore  incongruous  counterexamples,  and  so  on.  Thus,  the  adaptive  functions 
of  humor  as  playful  cognitive  activity  in  a  social  context  appear  to  be  an  extension  of 
the  original  functions  of  mammalian  physical  play  into  the  realm  of  cognition. 

Besides  these  benefits  of  the  cognitive  aspects  of  humor,  part  of  its  adaptive  func- 
tion may  have  to  do  with  the  positive  emotion  associated  with  it.  According  to  Barbara 
Fredrickson's  (2001)  Broaden-and-Build  Theory,  the  adaptive  functions  of  positive 
emotions  in  general,  including  the  humor-related  emotion  of  mirth,  is  to  broaden  the 
scope  of  the  individual's  focus  of  attention,  allowing  for  more  creative  problem  solving 
and  an  increased  range  of  behavioral  response  options,  and  to  build  physical,  intellec- 
tual, and  social  resources  that  are  available  to  the  individual  for  dealing  with  life's  chal- 
lenges. Evidence  in  support  of  this  theory  has  been  provided  by  recent  research 
conducted  by  Fredrickson  and  her  colleagues  on  mirth  and  other  positive  emotions 
(e.g.,  Fredrickson  and  Branigan,  2005;  Fredrickson  et  al.,  2000).  These  ideas  are  also 
consistent  with  the  suggestion  made  by  Michelle  Shiota  and  her  colleagues  (2004) 
that  positive  emotions,  including  humor-related  mirth,  play  an  important  role  in  the 
regulation  of  interpersonal  relationships. 

Although  human  laughter  appears  to  have  originated  in  play,  it  has  evidently 
undergone  considerable  evolutionary  change  since  we  diverged  from  our  nearest 
living  relative,  the  chimpanzee,  some  6  million  years  ago.  As  noted  earlier,  human 
laughter  sounds  quite  different  from  that  of  chimpanzees  and  other  primates,  and  is 
based  on  a  different  respiratory  pattern.  Thus,  there  appears  to  have  been  some  adap- 
tive pressure  on  the  formal  characteristics  of  laughter  in  the  evolutionary  history  of 
our  species.  Matthew  Gervais  and  David  Wilson  (2005)  refer  to  these  modifications 
as  a  process  of  ritualization,  whereby  "a  signal  changes  in  structure  so  that  it  is  more 
prominent  and  unmistakable,  and  thus  more  readily  perceptible"  (p.  415). 

When  did  this  distinctively  human  form  of  laughter  evolve?  Robert  Provine 
(2000)  argued  that  the  divergence  from  apelike  to  humanlike  laughter  did  not  begin 
until  after  the  development  of  bipedalism  in  our  hominid  ancestors  (presumably  the 
australopithecines)  some  4  million  years  ago,  since  walking  on  two  legs  freed  the  thorax 
from  the  mechanical  constraints  of  quadrupedal  locomotion  and  allowed  for  the 
greater  control  over  respiration  that  is  needed  for  human  laughter  (as  well  as  lan- 
guage). In  turn,  Gervais  and  Wilson  (2005)  suggested  that  the  human  form  of  laugh- 
ter was  likely  fully  developed  before  the  evolution  of  language  (which  is  thought  to 
have  begun  with  Homo  habilis  around  2  million  years  ago),  since  brain  studies  indicate 
that  laughter  originates  in  subcortical,  limbic,  and  brainstem  areas  shared  with  other 
primates,  and  not  in  the  more  recently  evolved  neocortical  areas  in  which  language 
is  based.  If  this  reasoning  is  correct,  laughter  must  have  taken  its  contemporary  human 
form  sometime  between  2  and  4  million  years  ago. 


Why  did  laughter  in  humans  become  ritualized  in  this  way?  Gervais  and  Wilson 
(2005)  proposed  a  theory  drawing  on  contemporary  views  of  laughter  as  an  emotion- 
induction  mechanism.  In  particular,  they  suggested  that  the  changes  that  occurred  in 
laughter  were  ones  that  made  it  increasingly  effective  at  inducing  the  play-related  pos- 
itive emotion  of  mirth  in  other  members  of  a  group,  and  thereby  recruiting  them  to 
engage  in  social  play.  In  turn,  social  play  and  the  positive  emotion  associated  with  it 
presumably  provided  the  various  adaptive  benefits  discussed  earlier.  Individuals  who 
were  more  adept  at  becoming  playful  during  times  of  safety  and  eliciting  a  playful 
state  in  others  through  laughter  would  have  benefited  from  increased  fitness  within 
the  group.  In  addition,  groups  composed  of  members  who  more  frequently  engaged 
in  laughter  would  have  a  competitive  advantage  over  other  groups.  (For  an  alterna- 
tive, "selfish  gene"  theory  of  the  evolution  of  laughter,  see  Owren  and  Bachorowski, 

Besides  the  play-related  functions  of  humor,  mirth,  and  laughter,  over  the  course 
of  human  evolution  humor  seems  to  have  been  adapted  for  a  number  of  additional 
functions  by  means  of  co-optation.  A  number  of  such  additional  functions  have  been 
proposed  by  various  theorists  (see  Vaid,  1999,  for  a  review  of  evolutionary  theories  of 
humor).  For  example,  as  we  saw  in  Chapter  5,  Mulkay  (1988)  suggested  that  humor 
was  co-opted  as  a  mode  of  interpersonal  communication.  Along  the  same  line,  Richard 
Alexander  (1986)  proposed  an  evolutionary  theory  of  humor  that  emphasizes  its 
aggressive  as  well  as  its  bonding  aspects.  Using  the  concepts  of  ostracism  and  indi- 
rect reciprocity,  he  suggested  that  humor  evolved  as  a  way  of  favorably  manipulating 
one's  status  in  a  social  group  to  improve  one's  access  to  resources  for  reproductive 
success.  Jokes  and  other  disparaging  forms  of  humor  that  make  fun  of  members  of  an 
out-group  are  a  means  of  lowering  their  status  and  ostracizing  them,  while  more  affil- 
iative  forms  of  humor  are  a  method  of  enhancing  the  status  and  fostering  the  cohe- 
siveness  of  members  of  the  in-group. 

Geoffrey  Miller  (1997,  2000)  has  proposed  a  theory  that  focuses  on  the  creativ- 
ity of  humor  rather  than  its  aggressiveness,  suggesting  that  sexual  selection  played  a 
major  role  in  its  evolution.  According  to  this  view,  a  witty  sense  of  humor,  like  lin- 
guistic skills  and  creativity,  is  an  indicator  of  superior  intellectual  aptitude,  a  geneti- 
cally based  trait  that  enhances  one's  ability  to  compete  successfully  for  resources. 
Thus,  humor  is  a  "fitness  indicator,"  a  signal  for  "good  genes,"  increasing  the  indi- 
vidual's perceived  desirability  as  a  potential  mate.  This  theory  accounts  for  the  well- 
replicated  finding  (discussed  in  Chapter  5)  that  a  sense  of  humor  is  seen  by  people  in 
all  cultures  as  one  of  the  most  desirable  characteristics  in  a  prospective  mate,  and  par- 
ticularly in  women's  choice  of  a  male  partner  (Feingold,  1992).  The  preferred  selec- 
tion of  partners  with  a  sense  of  humor  would  ensure  that,  over  time,  genes  involved 
in  the  formation  of  brain  systems  underlying  humor  creation  and  appreciation  would 
proliferate  in  the  population. 

Some  recent  studies  have  investigated  hypotheses  derived  from  Miller's  sexual 
selection  theory.  Eric  Bressler  and  Sigal  Balshine  (2006)  presented  male  and  female 
undergraduates  photographs  of  two  individuals  (both  either  male  or  female)  along 
with  statements  that  were  supposedly  written  by  them.  The  statements  from  one  of 

38  6     •     THE    PSYCHOBIOLOGY    OF    HUMOR    AND    LAUGHTER 

each  pair  always  contained  humor,  and  the  other  did  not.  The  participants  were  then 
asked  to  rate  these  individuals  on  a  number  of  perceived  personality  traits  and  to  select 
the  one  that  was  most  desirable  as  a  relationship  partner.  The  results  revealed  that 
female  subjects  preferred  the  humorous  over  the  nonhumorous  male  as  a  potential 
partner,  whereas  no  such  preference  appeared  when  males  were  rating  females  or 
when  participants  of  either  gender  were  rating  individuals  of  the  same  sex.  These 
results  were  interpreted  as  providing  support  for  Miller's  theory  that  a  sense  of  humor 
evolved  as  a  means  of  attracting  potential  sexual  partners,  and  particularly  for  males 
to  attract  females. 

Although  research  has  shown  that  both  men  and  women  consider  a  sense  of 
humor  to  be  a  desirable  characteristic  in  a  prospective  mate  (Daniel  et  al.,  1985; 
Feingold,  1992),  sexual  selection  theory  would  suggest  that  the  two  sexes  may  have 
somewhat  different  ideas  about  what  a  desirable  sense  of  humor  is.  Women  may  think 
of  a  man  with  a  good  sense  of  humor  as  someone  who  makes  them  laugh,  whereas 
men  may  think  of  a  woman  with  a  sense  of  humor  as  someone  who  laughs  at  their 
jokes.  A  recent  study  by  Bressler  and  colleagues  provided  some  support  for  this 
hypothesis  (Bressler,  Martin,  and  Balshine,  2006).  When  presented  with  descriptions 
of  two  individuals  of  the  opposite  sex  and  asked  to  choose  which  one  was  more  attrac- 
tive as  a  potential  romantic  partner,  women  were  more  likely  to  choose  the  one  who 
produced  humor  and  made  them  laugh  over  the  one  who  appreciated  their  humor, 
whereas  men  were  more  likely  to  choose  the  humor  appreciator  over  the  humor 

A  number  of  other  evolutionary  theories  have  been  proposed,  each  suggesting 
somewhat  different  adaptive  functions  for  humor.  For  example,  humor  and  laughter 
have  been  viewed  as  a  "disabling  mechanism"  that  prevents  us  from  doing  things  that 
would  be  counterproductive  (Chafe,  1987),  or  as  a  form  of  "vocal  grooming"  which, 
like  physical  grooming  in  primates,  facilitates  social  bonding  (Dunbar,  1996).  Another 
theory  views  laughter  as  a  "false  alarm,"  signaling  to  others  that  a  stimulus  or  event 
is  unimportant  and  nonserious  (Ramachandran,  1998).  Although  many  of  these  the- 
ories seem  quite  plausible,  there  is  little  research  evidence  to  support  most  of  them. 
Like  evolutionary  psychology  in  general,  evolutionary  theories  of  humor  need  to 
provide  testable  hypotheses  making  them  potentially  falsifiable  so  that  they  can  be 
more  than  merely  "just  so"  stories  (Gould,  2002).  In  the  end,  we  may  never  have  defin- 
itive answers  concerning  the  origins  and  adaptive  functions  of  humor.  Nonetheless, 
these  sorts  of  evolutionary  theories  are  useful  if  they  generate  interesting  new 
hypotheses,  stimulating  new  lines  of  research,  and  providing  a  better  understanding 
of  the  phenomena. 


The  psychobiological  study  of  humor,  mirth,  and  laughter  contributes  interest- 
ing new  perspectives  and  insights,  complementing  the  findings  from  other  areas  of 
psychology.  The  biological  approach  to  humor  calls  our  attention  particularly  to  the 
emotional  aspects  of  this  phenomenon.  The  cognitive-perceptual  component  of 


humor  draws  on  many  cortical  brain  circuits  involved  in  information  processing. 
When  humorous  incongruity  is  perceived,  a  distinctive  emotional  state  is  elicited, 
which  I  have  referred  to  as  mirth.  Comparative  studies  of  nonhuman  animals  suggest 
that  this  emotion  originates  in  play,  a  social  activity  that  apparently  serves  important 
adaptive  functions.  Recent  brain  studies,  using  animal  models  as  well  as  neuroimag- 
ing  in  humans,  are  just  beginning  to  unravel  the  "emotional  operating  system"  of 
mirth,  the  specialized  brain  structures  and  circuits  that  underlie  this  emotion.  These 
studies  have  already  implicated  the  well-known  dopaminergic  mesolimbic  reward 
centers,  as  well  as  the  role  of  opiates  and  various  neuropeptides.  Further  research  in 
this  area,  part  of  the  growing  field  of  affective  neuroscience,  will  likely  yield  many 
interesting  discoveries,  not  only  about  the  brain  circuits,  but  also  the  brain  biochem- 
istry of  humor-related  mirth  and  the  potential  interactions  of  these  biochemicals  with 
other  systems  of  the  body,  including  the  endocrine  and  immune  systems. 

The  emotion  of  mirth  typically  also  triggers  the  expressive  behavior  of  laughter, 
which  communicates  to  others  the  presence  of  this  emotional  state  in  the  individual. 
Laughter  is  characterized  by  a  distinctive  pattern  of  vocalizations,  respiration,  and 
facial  expression.  Although  we  often  view  laughter  as  the  "cause"  of  changes  in  auto- 
nomic  arousal  and  brain  biochemistry,  it  seems  more  appropriate  to  view  all  of  these 
as  effects  of  the  emotion  of  mirth.  Laughter  is  essentially  a  social  behavior,  a  fixed 
action  pattern  that  serves  an  interpersonal  communication  function.  It  has  a  conta- 
gious effect,  as  the  sound  of  laughter  elicits  feelings  of  mirth  in  others,  causing  them 
to  laugh  as  well. 

The  biological  approach  also  draws  attention  to  the  evolutionary  basis  of  humor. 
A  type  of  play-related  laughter  occurs  in  our  closest  ape  relative,  the  chimpanzee,  as 
well  as  other  primates,  and  it  has  even  been  suggested  that  homologues  of  laughter 
may  be  seen  in  the  play  activities  of  rats,  suggesting  that  the  origins  of  mirth  and 
laughter  may  extend  to  our  earliest  mammalian  ancestors.  The  play  face  and  related 
vocalizations  in  nonhuman  animals  signal  a  distinction  between  reality  and  pretense, 
seriousness  and  fun,  indicating  a  rudimentary  conception  of  humor.  With  the  expo- 
nential growth  in  the  human  cortex,  and  the  associated  increase  in  cognitive  abilities 
including  language,  abstract  reasoning,  self-awareness,  and  theory  of  mind,  humans 
have  taken  social  play  to  a  new  level.  By  playing  with  language  and  ideas  in  the  verbal 
equivalent  of  competitive  rough-and-tumble  play,  an  activity  that  we  call  "humor,"  we 
activate  the  same  emotional  brain  circuits,  autonomic  arousal  patterns,  and  behavioral 
displays  that  are  involved  in  actual  physical  play.  Although  play  is  largely  a  juvenile 
activity  in  most  animals,  and  rough-and-tumble  play  typically  ends  with  childhood  in 
humans  as  well,  play  in  the  form  of  humor  continues  to  be  an  important  activity 
throughout  adulthood  in  humans,  serving  important  social  functions.  By  testing 
hypotheses  derived  from  various  evolutionary  theories  of  humor,  research  in  the  field 
of  evolutionary  psychology  may  help  to  elucidate  its  adaptive  functions,  as  well  as  take 
research  on  humor  into  interesting  new  avenues.  In  sum,  while  research  in  the  field 
of  psychobiology  has  made  considerable  progress  in  furthering  our  understanding  of 
the  origins,  nature,  and  biological  bases  of  humor,  mirth,  and  laughter,  this  promises 
to  be  an  exciting  area  of  further  research  in  the  future. 

Personality  Approaches  to  the 
Sense  of  Humor 

ow  would  you  describe  one  of  your 

friends  to  another  person?  In  addition  to  physical  characteristics  such  as  height  and 
hair  color,  you  would  likely  mention  various  personality  traits,  describing  his  or  her 
level  of  friendliness,  intelligence,  competitiveness,  or  generosity.  Chances  are  that  you 
would  also  mention  his  or  her  sense  of  humor,  saying  something  like  "She  often  makes 
me  laugh,"  or  "He  always  sees  the  funny  side  of  things."  Thus,  sense  of  humor  may 
be  viewed  as  a  personality  trait  (or,  more  accurately,  a  set  of  loosely  related  traits), 
referring  to  consistent  tendencies  to  perceive,  enjoy,  or  create  humor  in  one's  daily 

Personality  has  to  do  with  "an  individual's  habitual  way  of  thinking,  feeling,  per- 
ceiving, and  reacting  to  the  world"  (Magnavita,  2002,  p.  16).  Personality  traits  are 
hypothetical  constructs  that  describe  the  ways  people  differ  from  one  another  and  that 
enable  us  to  make  predictions  about  how  they  will  behave  in  various  situations. 
Although  people's  behavior  is  partly  influenced  by  situational  factors  (you  are  more 
likely  to  tell  jokes  at  a  party  than  at  a  funeral,  for  instance),  individuals  also  display 
some  degree  of  consistency  across  situations  (some  people  are  more  likely  than  others 
to  tell  jokes  in  any  particular  situation). 

A  personality  trait  may  be  viewed  as  a  dimension  along  which  all  people  can  be 
placed,  with  some  falling  at  the  very  high  or  low  ends  of  the  scale  and  others  some- 
where between  the  extremes.  Personality  psychologists  seek  to  identify  the  various 
traits  that  account  for  behavioral,  cognitive,  and  affective  differences  among  people, 



to  create  reliable  and  valid  measures  for  quantifying  these  traits,  to  explore  the  rela- 
tionships among  different  traits  and  their  ability  to  predict  particular  behaviors  and 
affects,  and  to  investigate  the  biological,  social,  and  psychological  factors  that  account 
for  such  individual  differences. 

Among  the  many  traits  that  they  have  investigated,  sense  of  humor  has  long  been 
a  topic  of  interest  to  personality  psychologists.  Several  of  the  most  influential  early 
personality  researchers  and  theorists,  including  such  disparate  thinkers  as  Hans 
Eysenck  (1942),  Raymond  Cattell  (Cattell  and  Luborsky,  1947),  Gordon  Allport 
(1961),  and  Sigmund  Freud  (1960  [1905]),  investigated  humor  and  found  a  place  for 
it  in  their  theoretical  systems  (for  a  review,  see  R.  A.  Martin,  1998).  In  the  past  few 
decades,  the  study  of  sense  of  humor  as  a  personality  trait  has  continued  to  be  one  of 
the  most  active  areas  of  research  in  the  psychology  of  humor.  Researchers  have  devel- 
oped a  number  of  tests  for  measuring  different  aspects  or  components  of  this 
construct,  and  numerous  studies  have  been  conducted  to  investigate  how  these 
humor-related  traits  correlate  with  other  personality  dimensions  and  predict  relevant 

A  particular  interest  in  much  of  the  recent  research  has  been  the  role  of  sense  of 
humor  in  mental  health  and  coping  with  stress.  I  will  discuss  the  mental  health  impli- 
cations of  sense  of  humor  in  Chapter  9.  In  this  chapter,  I  will  focus  on  the  concep- 
tualization and  measurement  of  individual  differences  in  humor  and  their  association 
with  other  personality  dimensions.  I  will  begin  by  exploring  what  we  mean  by  sense 
of  humor,  noting  that  this  concept  seems  to  comprise  several  different  dimensions.  I 
will  then  discuss  various  approaches  that  researchers  have  taken  in  defining  and  mea- 
suring this  concept  and  will  review  research  examining  relationships  between  these 
different  humor  measures  and  other  personality  traits.  These  approaches  include: 
humor  appreciation  measures,  which  assess  the  degree  to  which  individuals  enjoy  dif- 
ferent types  of  humor;  self-report  measures  of  various  components  of  sense  of  humor; 
measures  of  people's  ability  to  produce  humor;  and  a  q-sort  technique  for  assessing 
humor  styles.  I  will  then  discuss  factor  analytic  research  examining  interrelationships 
among  these  different  measurement  approaches.  Finally,  I  will  review  some  research 
investigating  the  personality  traits  of  professional  comedians. 


As  we  saw  in  Chapter  1 ,  the  concept  of  sense  of  humor  developed  in  the  nine- 
teenth century.  In  its  original  meaning,  it  had  an  aesthetic  connotation,  referring  to 
a  faculty  or  capacity  for  the  perception  or  appreciation  of  humor,  something  like  a 
sense  of  beauty  in  art  or  an  ear  for  music.  At  that  time,  the  word  humor  also  had  a 
narrower  meaning  than  it  has  today,  referring  to  a  sympathetic  form  of  amusement 
that  was  linked  to  pathos,  and  was  distinguished  from  wit,  which  was  seen  as  more 
aggressive  and  less  socially  desirable  (Ruch,  1998a;  Wickberg,  1998).  The  sense  of 
humor,  as  a  character  trait  relating  to  this  positive  form  of  amusement,  therefore  also 
took  on  a  very  socially  desirable  connotation,  and  came  to  be  viewed  as  one  of  the 

WHAT    IS    SENSE    OF    HUMOR? 

most  positive  traits  a  person  could  have.  Over  the  years,  however,  the  meaning  of 
humor  has  broadened  to  cover  all  types  of  mirthful  phenomena,  and  sense  of  humor  has 
also  been  extended  to  include  a  much  wider  range  of  humor-related  traits,  while 
retaining  its  very  positive  connotation.  Thus,  a  sense  of  humor  has  become  a  very 
desirable  but  also  a  very  poorly  defined  personality  characteristic. 

Most  people  think  of  themselves  as  having  a  good  sense  of  humor.  As  the  Amer- 
ican essayist  Frank  Moore  Colby  wittily  observed,  "Men  will  confess  to  treason, 
murder,  arson,  false  teeth,  or  a  wig.  How  many  of  them  will  own  up  to  a  lack  of 
humor?"  (quoted  in  Andrews,  1993,  p.  431).  Gordon  Allport  (1961)  found  that,  when 
asked  to  assess  their  own  sense  of  humor,  94  percent  of  research  participants  rated  it 
as  either  average  or  above  average,  with  only  6  percent  acknowledging  a  below- 
average  sense  of  humor  (statistically,  of  course,  50  percent  of  the  population  are  below 
average).  Herbert  Lefcourt  and  I  (1986)  replicated  this  finding  25  years  later  in  a  study 
of  university  students. 

People  generally  associate  a  sense  of  humor  with  many  desirable  characteristics 
beyond  merely  the  tendency  to  create  or  enjoy  humor.  When  research  participants 
were  asked  to  rate  the  personality  traits  of  a  hypothetical  person  with  a  "well  above 
average  sense  of  humor,"  as  well  as  someone  with  a  "below  average  sense  of  humor," 
the  high-humor  person  was  rated  as  being  significantly  more  friendly,  pleasant,  co- 
operative, interesting,  imaginative,  creative,  clever,  admirable,  intelligent,  and  per- 
ceptive, and  significantly  less  complaining,  cold,  mean,  and  passive  (Cann  and 
Calhoun,  2001).  At  the  same  time,  though,  the  high-humor  person  was  also  rated  as 
being  more  impulsive,  boastful,  and  restless,  and  less  mature,  indicating  that  the  sense 
of  humor  concept  does  contain  some  less  desirable  characteristics  as  well.  On  the 
major  personality  dimensions  of  the  well-known  Five  Factor  Model  (FFM)  of  per- 
sonality (McCrae  and  John,  1992),  this  same  study  found  that  people  with  an  above 
average  sense  of  humor  are  perceived  to  be  more  emotionally  stable,  extraverted, 
open  to  experience,  and  agreeable,  but  less  conscientious  than  their  low-humor 

While  everyone  wants  to  believe  they  have  a  good  sense  of  humor,  which  is 
thought  to  be  associated  with  many  desirable  qualities  and  characteristics,  no  one 
seems  to  know  exactly  what  a  sense  of  humor  is.  Indeed,  Cann  and  Calhoun  (2001) 
questioned  whether  this  popular  but  nebulous  concept  has  any  consistent,  specific  ref- 
erents at  all,  or  whether  it  is  simply  a  relatively  nonspecific  configuration  of  socially 
desirable  characteristics.  As  Louise  Omwake  (1939,  p.  95)  stated  over  65  years  ago, 
the  sense  of  humor  "is  so  all-inclusive  and  highly  prized  that  to  say  of  another:  'He 
has  a  grand  sense  of  humor'  is  almost  synonymous  with:  'He  is  intelligent,  he's  a  good 
sport,  and  I  like  him  immensely.'"  If  sense  of  humor  is  to  be  a  scientifically  useful 
trait  concept  that  can  be  measured  reliably  and  validly  in  personality  research,  it  obvi- 
ously needs  to  be  defined  more  carefully  and  precisely. 

As  I  have  noted  in  earlier  chapters,  humor  is  a  complex  phenomenon  that  touches 
on  many  aspects  of  our  daily  lives.  It  is  a  type  of  mental  play  comprising  social,  cog- 
nitive, emotional,  and  expressive  components.  It  also  takes  many  forms,  including 
canned  jokes,  spontaneous  conversational  witticisms,  irony,  puns,  double  entendres, 


amusing  anecdotes,  and  unintentionally  fimny  speech  and  actions.  In  addition,  it 
serves  a  wide  variety  of  psychological  functions,  including  the  cognitive  and  social 
benefits  of  the  positive  emotion  of  mirth;  its  many  uses  in  interpersonal  communica- 
tion and  influence,  which  can  be  both  prosocial  and  aggressive;  and  its  use  as  a  tension- 
relief  and  coping  mechanism.  People  can  be  producers  of  humor,  amusing  others  and 
making  them  laugh,  and  they  can  also  respond  to  the  humor  created  by  others.  As  a 
personality  trait  or  individual  difference  variable,  the  concept  of  sense  of  humor  can 
relate  to  any  of  these  different  components,  forms,  and  functions  of  humor.  Indeed, 
researchers  investigating  this  trait  have  taken  many  different  approaches,  each  focus- 
ing on  somewhat  different  aspects  of  this  complex  phenomenon.  Not  surprisingly, 
when  sense  of  humor  is  conceptualized  in  these  different  ways,  it  tends  to  be  associ- 
ated with  different  dimensions  of  human  behavior,  cognition,  and  personality. 

When  we  say  that  someone  has  a  sense  of  humor,  then,  we  may  mean  many  dif- 
ferent things.  Personality  psychologist  Hans  Eysenck  (1972)  pointed  out  three  dif- 
ferent possible  meanings.  First,  saying  someone  has  a  sense  of  humor  may  mean  that 
he  or  she  laughs  at  the  same  things  that  we  do  (qualitative  meaning).  Second,  we  may 
mean  that  the  person  laughs  a  great  deal  and  is  easily  amused  (quantitative  meaning). 
Third,  we  may  mean  that  the  person  is  the  "life  and  soul  of  the  party,"  telling  funny 
stories  and  amusing  other  people  (productive  meaning).  Eysenck  went  on  to  argue  that 
these  three  different  "senses  of  humor"  are  not  necessarily  highly  correlated  with  each 

Franz-Josef  Hehl  and  Willibald  Ruch  (1985)  expanded  on  Eysenck's  list,  noting 
that  individual  differences  in  sense  of  humor  may  relate  to  variation  in:  (1)  the  ability 
to  comprehend  jokes  and  other  humorous  stimuli  (i.e.,  to  "get"  the  joke);  (2)  the  way 
in  which  individuals  express  humor  and  mirth,  both  quantitatively  and  qualitatively; 
(3)  their  ability  to  create  humorous  comments  or  perceptions;  (4)  their  appreciation  of 
various  types  of  jokes,  cartoons,  and  other  humorous  materials;  (5)  the  degree  to  which 
they  actively  seek  out  sources  that  make  them  laugh,  such  as  comedy  movies  and  tel- 
evision programs;  (6)  their  memory  for  jokes  or  funny  events  in  their  own  lives;  and 
(7)  their  tendency  to  use  humor  as  a  coping  mechanism.  Elisha  Babad  (1974)  also  dis- 
tinguished between  humor  production  (the  ability  to  create  humor)  and  reproduction 
(the  tendency  to  retell  jokes  that  one  has  heard  from  others)  and  showed  that  the  two 
are  uncorrelated.  Yet  another  meaning  commonly  associated  with  sense  of  humor  is 
the  idea  of  not  taking  oneself  too  seriously  and  the  ability  to  laugh  at  one's  own  foibles 
and  weaknesses. 

Sense  of  humor  may  therefore  be  variously  conceptualized  as  a  habitual  behavior 
pattern  (tendency  to  laugh  frequently,  to  tell  jokes  and  amuse  others  with  spontaneous 
witticisms,  to  laugh  at  other  people's  humor  productions),  an  ability  (to  create  humor, 
to  amuse  others,  to  "get  the  joke,"  to  remember  jokes),  a  temperament  trait  (habitual 
cheerfulness,  playfulness),  an  aesthetic  response  (enjoyment  of  particular  types  of 
humorous  material),  an  attitude  (positive  attitude  toward  humor  and  humorous 
people),  a  world  view  (bemused,  nonserious  outlook  on  life),  or  a  coping  strategy 
or  defense  mechanism  (tendency  to  maintain  a  humorous  perspective  in  the  face  of 


These  different  ways  of  conceptualizing  sense  of  humor  also  lend  themselves  to 
different  measurement  approaches  in  personality  research.  For  example,  humor 
appreciation  tests  employing  funniness  ratings  of  jokes  and  cartoons  may  be  used  to 
measure  sense  of  humor  when  it  is  defined  as  an  aesthetic  response.  If  sense  of  humor 
is  conceived  as  a  habitual  behavior  pattern,  however,  it  may  be  better  to  measure  it 
with  self-report  scales  in  which  respondents  rate  the  degree  to  which  various  state- 
ments describe  their  typical  humor-related  behaviors,  thoughts,  feelings,  and  atti- 
tudes. Alternatively,  ratings  obtained  from  peers  or  trained  observers  may  be  used 
to  quantify  typical  humor  behaviors.  On  the  other  hand,  the  measurement  of  sense 
of  humor  as  a  cognitive  ability  requires  the  use  of  maximal  performance  tests  similar 
to  measures  of  intelligence  or  creativity,  such  as  tasks  in  which  participants'  humor 
productions  are  judged  for  funniness  and  originality.  As  we  will  see,  each  of  these 
different  conceptualizations  and  measurement  approaches  has  been  employed  by 
different  researchers. 

In  summary,  sense  of  humor  does  not  seem  to  be  a  unitary  trait.  Instead,  it  is  best 
conceived  as  a  group  of  traits  and  abilities  having  to  do  with  different  components, 
forms,  and  functions  of  humor.  Some  of  these  may  be  closely  related  to  each  other, 
while  others  are  likely  to  be  quite  distinct  (R.  A.  Martin,  2003).  For  example,  whereas 
people  with  a  good  ability  to  create  humor  likely  also  tend  to  enjoy  making  other 
people  laugh,  they  do  not  necessarily  also  tend  to  use  humor  in  coping  with  stress  in 
their  daily  lives.  Researchers  who  wish  to  investigate  hypotheses  concerning  sense  of 
humor  need  to  be  careful  to  identify  which  meaning  of  the  construct  is  theoretically 
most  relevant  to  their  research  questions,  and  select  the  measurement  approach  that 
is  most  appropriate. 


Does  the  type  of  humor  that  a  person  finds  most  amusing  tell  us  something  about 
his  or  her  personality?  This  idea,  which  has  been  popular  for  centuries,  is  reflected 
in  the  observation  of  the  German  poet  Johann  Wolfgang  von  Goethe  that  "men  show 
their  character  in  nothing  more  clearly  than  by  what  they  think  laughable"  (quoted 
by  Ruch  and  Hehl,  1998,  p.  109).  Based  on  this  idea,  some  clinicians  have  proposed 
that  asking  psychotherapy  patients  to  tell  their  favorite  jokes  might  be  a  useful  type 
of  projective  test  that  could  be  analyzed  to  diagnose  their  problems  and  identify  their 
unresolved  needs  and  conflicts  (e.g.,  Strother,  Barnett,  and  Apostolakos,  1954; 
Zwerling,  1955). 

This  view  is  also  the  basis  of  a  number  of  humor  appreciation  tests  that  have  been 
developed  by  personality  researchers  over  the  past  50  years  to  indirectly  assess  various 
personality  traits  (e.g.,  Cattell  and  Tollefson,  1966).  Indeed,  most  of  the  research  on 
individual  differences  in  sense  of  humor  prior  to  the  1980s  was  based  on  this  humor 
appreciation  approach,  and  it  continues  to  have  some  popularity  today.  In  this 
approach,  research  participants  are  presented  with  a  series  of  jokes,  cartoons, 
and  other  humorous  materials,  and  are  asked  to  rate  them  on  such  dimensions  as 


funniness,  enjoyment,  and  aversiveness.  The  humor  stimuli  are  clustered  into  various 
categories,  either  on  a  theoretical  basis  or  by  means  of  factor  analysis,  and  separate 
scores  are  computed  by  summing  participants'  ratings  within  each  category.  In  this 
approach,  then,  sense  of  humor  is  defined  in  terms  of  the  degree  to  which  the  indi- 
vidual enjoys  particular  types  or  categories  of  humor. 

Theoretically-Based  Content  Approaches 

In  many  of  the  early  humor  appreciation  tests,  the  humor  stimuli  (primarily  jokes 
and  cartoons)  were  categorized  by  the  experimenters  or  other  experts  on  the  basis  of 
their  content  themes.  These  content  categories  were  typically  derived  from  particu- 
lar theories  of  humor,  and  the  measures  were  then  used  in  research  to  test  these  the- 
ories. For  example,  to  test  Freud's  theory  that  repressed  sexual  and  aggressive  drives 
are  released  through  humor,  jokes,  and  cartoons  were  typically  classified  into  sexual, 
aggressive,  and  nonsense  (also  referred  to  as  innocent  or  nontendentious)  categories. 
As  noted  in  Chapter  2,  most  of  the  research  on  psychoanalytic  humor  theory  used 
this  approach.  For  example,  the  Mirth  Response  Test,  developed  by  Jacob  Levine  and 
his  colleagues  (1951),  consisted  of  36  cartoons  that  were  judged  to  tap  various  sex- 
and  aggression-related  themes.  Subjects'  positive  and  negative  responses  to  the  car- 
toons were  thought  to  reveal  their  unconscious  needs  and  unresolved  conflicts 
relating  to  these  themes. 

Research  using  the  theoretically  derived  content-based  humor  appreciation 
approach  provided  some  evidence  that  people's  level  of  enjoyment  of  various  types  of 
jokes  and  cartoons  is  related  to  certain  personality  traits.  For  example,  one  early  study 
found  that  participants  who  preferred  jokes  containing  sexual  and  aggressive  themes 
over  more  intellectually-based  humor  had  more  aggressive  themes  in  their  Thematic 
Apperception  Test  (TAT)  stories,  lower  scores  on  a  measure  of  intellectual  values,  less 
psychological  complexity,  and  higher  scores  on  a  measure  of  extraversion  (Grziwok 
and  Scodel,  1956).  Some  other  studies  also  found  positive  correlations  between  extra- 
version  and  liking  of  sexual  humor  (e.g.,  G.  D.  Wilson  and  Patterson,  1969). 

In  addition,  participants  with  more  conservative  attitudes  tended  to  prefer  "safe" 
types  of  humor  (e.g.,  puns),  whereas  those  endorsing  more  liberal  views  expressed 
greater  appreciation  of  overtly  "libidinal"  (e.g.,  sick  and  sexual)  types  of  humor  (G. 
D.  Wilson  and  Patterson,  1969).  In  general,  more  highly  anxious  individuals,  as  com- 
pared to  their  less  anxious  counterparts,  were  found  to  enjoy  humorous  materials  less, 
although  studies  differed  as  to  whether  this  effect  occurred  with  all  types  of  humor 
(Hammes  and  Wiggins,  1962),  or  only  with  aggressive  (J.  Doris  and  Fierman,  1956) 
or  nonsense  humor  (Spiegel,  Brodkin,  and  Keith-Spiegel,  1969).  One  study  even 
found  some  significant  correlations  between  participants'  funniness  ratings  of  jokes 
containing  anal  themes  (i.e.,  jokes  about  defecation  and  flatulence)  and  measures  of 
"anal"  personality  traits  such  as  obstinacy,  negativism,  hostility,  cleanliness,  and  thrift 
(O'Neill,  Greenberg,  and  Fisher,  1992). 

As  in  the  psychoanalytically  inspired  research,  humor  appreciation  tests  were  also 
used  in  many  of  the  studies  investigating  disparagement  theories  of  humor  (also 


reviewed  in  Chapter  2).  These  tests  typically  comprised  hostile  humor  that  was  cat- 
egorized by  the  researchers  according  to  the  identity  of  the  proponents  and  targets 
of  the  jokes.  Overall,  these  studies  demonstrated  that  people  tend  to  enjoy  dispar- 
agement humor  that  makes  fun  of  people  toward  whom  they  have  some  antipathy  (La 
Fave  et  al.,  1976;  Wicker  et  al.,  1980;  Wolff  et  al.,  1934;  Zillmann  and  Cantor,  1972, 
1976).  As  noted  in  Chapter  5,  researchers  have  also  used  similar  methods  to  study  the 
relationship  between  sexist  attitudes  and  the  enjoyment  of  sexist  humor  (e.g.,  Henkin 
and  Fish,  1986;  Moore  et  al.,  1987;  Thomas  and  Esses,  2004). 

In  summary,  a  large  number  of  studies  have  been  conducted  over  the  years  with 
humor  appreciation  tests  containing  theoretically  derived,  content-based  categories 
of  humorous  stimuli.  Most  of  this  research  was  conducted  prior  to  the  1980s,  although 
some  researchers  have  continued  to  employ  this  approach  more  recently  to  study  sub- 
jects' appreciation  for  particular  types  of  humor,  such  as  "sick"  jokes  (Herzog  and 
Bush,  1994;  Herzog  and  Karafa,  1998),  sexist  humor  (Greenwood  and  Isbell,  2002; 
Ryan  and  Kanjorski,  1998),  or  "perspective-taking"  humor  (Lefcourt  et  al.,  1997). 

Although  some  interesting  results  have  been  obtained,  this  approach  to  classify- 
ing humorous  materials  is  subject  to  several  criticisms  (Ruch,  1992).  Researchers 
typically  did  not  empirically  evaluate  the  reliability  and  validity  of  their  humor  clas- 
sifications, nor  did  they  test  the  assumption  of  homogeneity  of  participants'  responses 
to  humorous  stimuli  within  a  given  category.  As  Eysenck  (1972)  observed,  individu- 
als often  do  not  agree  about  which  aspects  of  a  joke  or  cartoon  they  find  salient  or 
why  they  consider  it  to  be  funny  or  unfunny.  The  dimensions  used  by  a  researcher  in 
categorizing  humorous  stimuli  may  therefore  not  be  relevant  to  the  way  the  partici- 
pants themselves  perceive  and  respond  to  them.  In  this  regard,  an  early  study  by 
Landis  and  Ross  (1933)  found  no  relation  between  subjects'  classifications  of  a  number 
of  jokes  and  the  way  these  jokes  had  been  classified  by  the  experimenters,  even  when 
the  subjects  were  provided  with  the  categories  and  their  definitions. 

In  addition,  because  researchers  using  this  approach  selected  particular  humor- 
ous stimuli  to  fit  their  theories,  they  were  unable  to  determine  whether  their  classi- 
fication systems  applied  to  all  kinds  of  humor  or  merely  to  a  subset.  Finally,  since 
many  of  the  humor  appreciation  tests  were  used  in  only  one  or  two  studies  by  indi- 
vidual researchers,  it  is  difficult  to  compare  the  results  across  different  studies.  Because 
of  these  weaknesses,  this  approach  has  not  led  to  much  accumulation  of  knowledge 
about  the  nature  of  sense  of  humor. 

Early  Factor  Analytic  Studies 

An  alternative  to  the  theoretically  derived  content-based  method  of  categorizing 
humor  stimuli  involves  the  use  of  factor  analysis  techniques.  Rather  than  construct- 
ing a  test  based  on  a  particular  theory,  this  approach  seeks  to  build  a  theory  on  the 
basis  of  empirically  derived  factor  dimensions.  Factor  analysis  is  a  statistical  technique 
for  examining  correlations  among  a  large  set  of  variables  and  identifying  a  smaller 
number  of  dimensions  (i.e.,  factors)  that  account  for  most  of  the  variance.  This 
method  has  been  used  extensively  by  personality  researchers  to  search  for  basic 


personality  traits,  as  in  the  FFM  mentioned  earlier.  Over  the  years,  some  humor 
researchers  have  also  applied  this  technique  to  identify  basic  dimensions  of  humor 

The  general  strategy  in  this  approach  is  to  obtain  a  large  number  of  jokes,  car- 
toons, and  other  humorous  stimuli  that  are  considered  to  be  representative  of  the 
whole  domain.  These  materials  are  then  rated  for  funniness  by  a  large  number  of 
research  participants.  By  factor-analyzing  these  ratings,  researchers  can  determine  the 
implicit  dimensions  underlying  people's  appreciation  of  humor.  Jokes  and  cartoons 
whose  ratings  are  highly  correlated  tend  to  cluster  together  in  the  same  factor,  whereas 
those  whose  ratings  are  uncorrelated  fall  into  different  factors.  By  examining  the  char- 
acteristics that  are  shared  by  the  humorous  stimuli  that  load  on  each  factor,  researchers 
can  identify  the  relevant  dimensions  that  people  implicitly  use  in  their  appraisals  of 
these  stimuli. 

Early  factor  analytic  studies  of  humor  appreciation  were  conducted  by  Hans 
Eysenck,  a  well-known  German-British  personality  researcher  (reviewed  by  Nias, 
1981).  Noting  that  most  theories  of  humor  were  developed  by  philosophers  and  based 
on  speculation,  Eysenck  sought  to  develop  a  theory  based  on  empirical  evidence.  To 
do  this,  he  administered  collections  of  verbal  jokes,  cartoons,  and  incongruous  pho- 
tographs to  16  participants  (a  very  small  sample  by  today's  standards)  who  were  asked 
to  rank-order  them  for  funniness  and  to  indicate  which  ones  they  enjoyed  (Eysenck, 
1942).  Factor  analyses  of  these  data  revealed  a  small  general  factor,  indicating  indi- 
vidual differences  in  the  degree  to  which  people  find  any  kind  of  humor  to  be  funny. 
In  addition,  the  analyses  revealed  three  specific  factors  or  dimensions  of  humor,  which 
were  labeled  as  (1)  sexual  versus  nonsexual;  (2)  simple  versus  complex;  and  (3)  per- 
sonal versus  impersonal. 

Eysenck  also  examined  the  correlations  between  participants'  ratings  of  humor 
on  the  three  factors  and  their  scores  on  a  personality  test.  Sexual  and  simple  jokes 
were  found  to  be  preferred  by  extraverted  individuals,  while  complex  and  nonsexual 
jokes  were  preferred  by  introverts.  These  factor  analytic  results  were  generally  repli- 
cated by  Eysenck  (1943)  in  another  study  in  which  he  administered  five  sets  of  humor- 
ous stimuli,  including  jokes,  cartoons,  and  funny  limericks,  to  100  adults  representing 
a  broad  cross  section  of  British  society. 

Based  on  these  factor  analytic  findings,  Eysenck  (1942)  proposed  a  theoretical 
model  of  humor  comprising  three  components  or  facets:  cognitive  (corresponding  to 
the  complexity  of  the  humor),  conative  (having  to  do  with  motivation  or  impulse 
expression),  and  affective  (relating  to  emotional  aspects).  He  further  combined  the 
conative  and  affective  components  under  the  term  orectic,  which  has  to  do  with  the 
"joyful  consciousness  of  superior  adaptation"  associated  with  humor.  He  noted  that 
different  traditional  theories  of  humor  focus  on  one  or  another  of  these  humor  facets. 
The  cognitive  aspects  are  emphasized  in  incongruity  theories  of  humor,  the  conative 
in  superiority/disparagement  theories,  and  the  affective  in  theories  that  stress  the  pos- 
itive emotions  associated  with  laughter.  According  to  Eysenck,  Freud's  theory  com- 
bined elements  of  all  three  components. 


Eysenck  also  suggested  that  each  of  these  components  may  be  present  in  a  given 
joke  to  varying  degrees,  and  individual  differences  in  sense  of  humor  may  be  con- 
ceptualized in  terms  of  the  degree  to  which  people  enjoy  humor  containing  these  dif- 
ferent elements.  For  example,  he  suggested  that  introverts  are  more  likely  to  enjoy 
humor  in  which  the  cognitive  element  predominates,  whereas  extraverts  tend  to  prefer 
humor  in  which  the  orectic  aspects  are  paramount.  Further  support  for  this  view  was 
provided  by  Wilson  and  Patterson  (1969)  who  found  a  significant  correlation  between 
participants'  scores  on  a  measure  of  extraversion  and  their  funniness  ratings  of  sexual 
jokes.  However,  as  we  will  see,  other  researchers  have  failed  to  replicate  this  finding 
(Ruch,  1992).  Overall,  then,  Eysenck  was  one  of  the  first  researchers  who  attempted 
to  develop  a  general  theory  of  sense  of  humor  based  on  factor  analytic  studies  of 
humor  appreciation. 

Raymond  Cattell  was  another  well-known  pioneer  of  general  personality  research 
who  conducted  early  factor  analytic  studies  of  humor  appreciation.  Cattell  and 
Luborsky  (1947)  collected  a  set  of  100  jokes  that  were  considered  to  be  representa- 
tive of  a  broad  range  of  humor  and  relatively  free  of  cultural  bias.  A  sample  of  50  male 
and  50  female  undergraduate  students  were  asked  to  rate  the  funniness  of  each  joke 
on  two  different  occasions.  Factor  analyses  revealed  1 3  clusters  of  jokes  that  appeared 
to  have  adequate  internal  consistency  and  test-retest  reliability.  Subjects'  scores  on 
each  of  these  clusters  were  subsequently  submitted  to  an  additional  factor  analysis, 
resulting  in  five  fairly  orthogonal  (i.e.,  uncorrelated)  factors.  Based  on  the  themes  of 
the  jokes  loading  on  each  factor,  the  factors  were  tentatively  labeled  as:  (1)  good- 
natured  self-assertion;  (2)  rebellious  dominance;  (3)  easy  going  sensuality;  (4)  resigned 
derision;  and  (5)  urbane  sophistication.  The  authors  suggested  that  these  clusters  and 
factors  of  humor  appreciation  might  be  related  to  the  12  to  16  general  personality 
factors  identified  by  Cattell  (1947)  in  his  factor  analyses  of  personality  traits. 

To  test  these  ideas,  in  a  subsequent  study  Luborsky  and  Cattell  (1947)  examined 
the  correlations  between  individuals'  funniness  scores  on  the  1 3  joke  clusters  and  their 
scores  on  10  personality  dimensions  measured  by  the  Guilford-Martin  temperament 
inventory.  Six  of  these  personality  dimensions  were  found  to  be  significantly  corre- 
lated with  funniness  ratings  of  various  joke  clusters,  allowing  for  further  refinement 
of  the  cluster  labels.  These  findings  caused  the  authors  to  be  quite  optimistic  about 
the  possibility  of  using  these  humor  appreciation  factors  as  a  method  of  assessing  more 
general  dimensions  of  personality.  For  example,  one  joke  factor  was  found  to  be  cor- 
related with  extraversion,  and  it  was  suggested  that  those  jokes  could  be  used  as  an 
objective  measure  of  this  trait.  These  ideas  were  subsequently  incorporated  into  the 
IPAT  Humor  Test  of  Personality  (Cattell  and  Tollefson,  1966),  which  was  designed 
to  assess  humor  preferences  in  each  of  these  factors  as  a  way  of  indirectly  measuring 
more  general  personality  traits. 

Despite  the  effort  that  went  into  developing  the  IPAT  humor  test,  it  had  several 
weaknesses  and  was  never  widely  used.  The  reliabilities  of  the  scales  were  quite  low, 
and  the  stability  of  the  factor  structure  was  questionable.  Other  researchers  factor- 
analyzed  the  same  set  of  jokes  and  found  an  entirely  different  factor  structure  (Yarnold 

X)  7     •     PERSONALITY    APPROACHES    TO    THE    SENSE    OF    HUMOR 

and  Berkeley,  1954).  Part  of  the  problem  seems  to  have  been  the  use  of  a  forced- 
choice  response  format,  resulting  in  the  overextraction  of  numerous  weak  and  unsta- 
ble factors  and  suppression  of  stronger  and  more  stable  factors  (Ruch,  1992).  In 
addition,  very  little  research  was  conducted  to  evaluate  the  validity  of  the  humor  factor 
scores  as  measures  of  more  general  personality  traits.  This  test  has  been  used  in  only 
a  few  published  studies  to  investigate  such  topics  as  personality  traits  of  effective  coun- 
selors (Kush,  1997),  the  relation  between  humor  appreciation  and  perceived  physical 
health  (Carroll,  1990),  and  gender  differences  in  humor  appreciation  (Carroll,  1989; 
Hickson,  1977). 

Ruch's  Factor-Analytic  Investigations 

The  early  factor-analytic  studies  of  humor  appreciation  were  limited  by  small 
sample  sizes  and  a  number  of  methodological  weaknesses.  In  the  early  1980s, 
Willibald  Ruch,  an  Austrian  psychologist  who  is  now  at  the  University  of  Zurich  in 
Switzerland,  set  out  to  investigate  the  factor  structure  of  humor  appreciation  in  a  more 
thorough  and  systematic  way  (for  a  review,  see  Ruch,  1992).  To  ensure  a  compre- 
hensive representation  of  humor  types,  he  began  by  amassing  a  set  of  600  jokes  and 
cartoons  that  were  obtained  from  a  wide  range  of  sources.  Many  were  taken  randomly 
from  popular  magazines  and  joke  books,  while  others  were  selected  as  representative 
of  the  categories  discussed  in  the  humor  literature  and  used  in  previous  studies. 

Over  a  series  of  factor-analytic  studies  conducted  by  Ruch  and  his  colleagues,  dif- 
fering but  overlapping  sets  of  jokes  and  cartoons  from  this  initial  pool  were  adminis- 
tered to  a  number  of  samples  of  male  and  female  participants  representing  a  broad 
range  of  ages,  social  class,  occupations,  and  health  status  (Hehl  and  Ruch,  1985; 
McGhee,  Ruch,  and  Hehl,  1990;  Ruch,  1981,  1984,  1988;  Ruch,  McGhee,  and  Hehl, 
1990).  The  materials  were  also  translated  into  several  languages,  and  studies  were  con- 
ducted with  samples  in  Austria,  Germany,  England,  Turkey,  France,  Italy,  and  the 
United  States  (Forabosco  and  Ruch,  1994;  Ruch  and  Forabosco,  1996;  Ruch  and 
Hehl,  1998;  Ruch  et  al.,  1991). 

These  factor-analytic  studies  revealed  three  stable  and  robust  factors  that  appear 
to  account  for  most  of  the  variance  in  humor  appreciation  and  are  consistently  found 
across  different  humorous  stimuli  and  in  all  populations  studied.  Interestingly,  the  first 
two  factors  have  to  do  with  structural  aspects  of  humor,  rather  than  content  themes. 
The  first  of  these,  labeled  incongruity-resolution  humor  (INC-RES),  comprises  jokes 
and  cartoons  in  which  the  incongruity  introduced  by  the  punch  line  can  be  resolved 
by  information  available  elsewhere  in  the  joke.  In  these  jokes,  there  is  a  sense  of  having 
"gotten  the  point"  or  understood  the  joke  once  it  is  resolved.  Most  of  the  "canned" 
jokes  that  people  relate  in  social  settings,  consisting  of  a  setup  and  a  punch  line,  fit 
into  this  category.  This  type  of  humor  is  consistent  with  the  two-stage  incongruity- 
resolution  models  of  humor  discussed  in  Chapter  3  (e.g.,  Suls,  1972). 

The  second  factor,  labeled  nonsense  humor  (NON),  also  relates  to  joke  structure 
rather  than  content.  Jokes  and  cartoons  in  this  category  also  contain  a  surprising  or 
incongruous  element,  but  the  incongruity  is  not  fully  resolved,  giving  the  appearance 


of  making  sense  without  actually  doing  so.  This  type  of  humor  might  be  described  as 
bizarre,  fanciful,  off-the-wall,  or  zany.  In  this  humor  there  is  not  a  sense  of  "getting" 
the  joke,  but  rather  one  of  enjoying  a  fanciful  incongruity  for  its  own  sake.  Many  of 
Gary  Larsen's  Far  Side  cartoons,  as  well  as  the  zany  humor  of  Monty  Python 's  Flying 
Circus  have  been  found  to  load  on  this  factor  (Ruch,  1992,  1999).  Thus,  contrary  to 
the  assumption  made  by  earlier  researchers  that  humor  should  be  categorized  accord- 
ing to  its  content  or  themes,  Ruch's  research  demonstrated  that  people's  humor 
preferences  have  more  to  do  with  structure  than  with  content. 

The  third  factor,  labeled  sexual  humor  (SEX)  is  composed  of  jokes  and  cartoons 
containing  obvious  sexual  content  themes,  indicating  that  people  tend  to  be  fairly  con- 
sistent in  the  degree  to  which  they  enjoy  or  dislike  sexual  humor.  Most  of  these  sexual 
humor  materials  were  also  found  to  have  secondary  loadings  on  one  or  the  other  of 
the  first  two  structural  factors,  depending  on  whether  the  humor  contained  resolved 
or  unresolved  incongruity.  An  example  of  a  SEX  joke  with  a  secondary  ING-RES 
loading  is  the  following: 

"So  how  was  Scotland?"  the  father  asked  his  daughter,  who  had  just  returned  from  a  vacation.  "Is 
it  true  they  all  have  bagpipes?"  "Oh,  that's  just  one  of  those  silly  stereotypes,"  replied  the  daughter. 
"All  the  ones  I  met  had  quite  a  normal  one." 

The  incongruity  of  the  daughter's  reply  is  resolved  when  we  recognize  that  she  mis- 
understood her  father's  question  about  bagpipes  to  be  referring  to  the  appearance  of 
Scottish  men's  genitals.  In  contrast,  a  cartoon  that  loaded  on  the  SEX  factor  with  a 
secondary  NON  loading  shows  a  hen  lying  on  her  back  with  her  legs  in  the  air,  saying 
to  a  rooster  who  is  facing  her,  "Just  once  ...  for  a  change."  A  hen  desiring  sex  in  the 
"missionary  position"  is  incongruous,  and  this  incongruity  cannot  be  resolved  by 
finding  some  additional  information  that  enables  one  to  "get  the  joke." 

The  SEX  factor,  which  was  the  only  one  found  by  Ruch  that  had  to  do  with 
content,  has  also  consistently  been  found  in  other  factor-analytic  studies  (e.g., 
Eysenck,  1942;  Herzog  and  Larwin,  1988).  Although,  as  we  have  seen,  many  past 
researchers  have  classified  humor  stimuli  on  a  theoretical  basis  into  various  additional 
content  categories,  such  as  aggressive,  hostile,  sexist,  scatological,  anal,  or  sick  humor, 
Ruch's  investigations  did  not  reveal  any  such  content  factors,  even  though  he  was 
careful  to  include  examples  of  all  these  kinds  of  humor  among  his  stimuli.  Instead, 
humor  containing  these  sorts  of  themes  always  loaded  on  one  or  the  other  of  the  two 
structural  factors.  Thus,  apart  from  sexual  themes,  individuals  do  not  appear  to 
respond  in  any  consistent  way  to  jokes  or  cartoons  based  on  the  topic  of  the  humor. 
Instead,  the  degree  to  which  people  enjoy  humor  seems  to  be  primarily  influenced  by 
whether  or  not  the  incongruity  is  resolved,  or  "makes  sense"  in  some  way. 

Besides  factor-analyzing  the  humor  stimuli,  Ruch  also  investigated  the  factor 
structure  of  participants'  responses  to  humor.  Using  a  number  of  different  positive  and 
negative  rating  scales,  Ruch  found  two  response  factors:  (1)  a  positive  enjoyment  or 
funniness  factor,  and  (2)  an  aversiveness  or  rejection  factor.  These  were  only  weakly 
negatively  correlated,  indicating  that  individuals  who  find  a  particular  joke  to  be  very 
funny  do  not  necessarily  rate  it  as  low  on  aversiveness.  For  example,  an  individual 


might  view  a  sexist  or  racist  joke  as  very  funny  but  also  very  aversive.  Thus,  funni- 
ness  or  enjoyment  ratings  alone  do  not  adequately  assess  people's  responses  to  humor; 
it  is  also  important  to  evaluate  their  negative  reactions.  Furthermore,  research  by  Igor 
Gavanski  (1986)  indicated  that  these  sorts  of  funniness  and  aversiveness  ratings  pri- 
marily reflect  people's  cognitive  evaluations  of  humor  stimuli,  rather  than  their  emo- 
tional response  (i.e.,  the  degree  of  mirth  experienced),  which  is  more  strongly  gauged 
by  the  amount  of  smiling  and  laughter  displayed.  This  partial  dissociation  between 
cognitive  and  emotional  responses  to  humor  explains  why  many  studies  have  found 
only  weak  correlations  between  funniness  ratings  and  the  degree  of  smiling  and 

Based  on  his  factor-analytic  studies,  Ruch  (1983)  constructed  the  3WD  (Witz- 
dimensioneri)  humor  test  to  assess  individuals'  ratings  of  funniness  and  aversiveness  of 
jokes  and  cartoons  on  the  three  identified  factors.  A  50-item  version  (form  K)  and 
two  parallel  3  5 -item  versions  (forms  A  and  B)  are  available.  The  jokes  and  cartoons 
are  printed  in  test  booklets,  and  respondents  are  instructed  to  rate  their  funniness  and 
aversiveness  on  6-point  scales.  The  total  funniness  and  aversiveness  scores  for  each 
factor  have  been  shown  to  have  good  internal  consistencies  and  test-retest  reliabili- 
ties. Scores  on  the  three  factors  are  moderately  positively  intercorrelated,  indicating 
that,  to  some  degree,  individuals  who  enjoy  (or  dislike)  one  type  of  humor  also  tend 
to  enjoy  (or  dislike)  the  others. 

Personality  Correlates  of  the  3WD  Dimensions 

Numerous  studies  have  been  conducted  to  examine  correlations  between  scores 
on  the  three  factors  of  the  3WD  humor  test  and  a  variety  of  personality  traits 
(reviewed  in  Ruch,  1992;  Ruch  and  Hehl,  1998).  The  total  funniness  ratings  across 
the  three  factors  have  been  found  to  be  weakly  correlated  with  extraversion,  indicat- 
ing that  extraverts  are  somewhat  more  likely  than  introverts  to  enjoy  all  kinds  of  jokes 
and  cartoons.  In  addition,  the  total  aversiveness  scores  are  weakly  correlated  with  neu- 
roticism,  indicating  that  people  who  generally  experience  more  negative  emotions 
such  as  anxiety,  depression,  or  guilt  tend  to  dislike  all  kinds  of  jokes  and  cartoons. 
This  is  particularly  true  for  neurotic  individuals  who  are  also  introverted  and  who  are 
high  on  tender-mindedness,  a  construct  relating  to  empathy,  concern  for  others,  tol- 
erance, and  democratic  values.  These  findings  are  consistent  with  recent  fMRI  find- 
ings (discussed  in  Chapter  6)  that  people  who  are  high  in  extraversion  and  those  who 
are  low  in  neuroticism  show  greater  activation  of  the  reward  centers  in  the  limbic 
system  of  the  brain  on  exposure  to  humorous  cartoons  (Mobbs  et  al.,  2005).  Inter- 
estingly, total  funniness  scores  on  the  3WD  have  also  been  found  to  be  negatively 
correlated  with  religious  fundamentalism  and  orthodoxy,  indicating  that  people  who 
are  high  in  these  types  of  conservative  religious  orientation  are  less  likely  to  enjoy  all 
types  of  jokes  and  cartoons  (Saroglou,  2003). 

Much  of  Ruch's  research  has  focused  on  personality  traits  having  to  do  with 
conservatism,  tolerance  of  ambiguity,  and  sensation  seeking  in  relation  to  the  two 
structure-related  humor  dimensions  (NON  and  INC-RES).  Since  the  appreciation  of 


nonsense  humor  requires  the  individual  to  tolerate  and  even  enjoy  residual  incon- 
gruity, bizarreness,  and  absurdity,  Ruch  hypothesized  that  this  type  of  humor  would 
be  enjoyed  by  people  who  have  a  high  tolerance  for  ambiguity,  a  general  sensation- 
seeking  orientation,  and  a  preference  for  complex,  novel,  and  unstructured  stimuli. 
On  the  other  hand,  since  ING-RES  humor  is  more  unambiguous  and  uncomplicated, 
and  generally  involves  the  application  of  stereotypes  to  resolve  the  incongruity,  the 
enjoyment  of  this  type  of  humor  was  predicted  to  be  related  to  greater  conservatism 
and  a  general  need  for  structured,  uncomplicated,  stable,  unambiguous,  and  safe  forms 
of  stimulation. 

Research  conducted  by  Ruch  and  others  has  provided  a  good  deal  of  support  for 
these  predictions.  Measures  of  conservative  and  authoritarian  personality  traits  and 
attitudes  have  consistently  been  found  to  be  positively  correlated  with  funniness 
ratings  of  INC-RES  humor  and  with  aversiveness  ratings  of  NON  humor  (Hehl 
and  Ruch,  1990;  Ruch,  1984;  Ruch  and  Hehl,  1986a,  1986b).  Thus,  individuals  who 
espouse  more  conservative  views  (as  measured  by  scales  of  intolerance  of  minorities, 
militarism,  religious  fundamentalism,  education  to  submission,  traditional  family  ide- 
ology, capitalism,  economic  values,  and  value  orthodoxy)  and  authoritarian  attitudes 
(punitiveness,  intolerance  of  ambiguity,  law-and-order  attitude)  are  more  likely  to 
enjoy  humor  in  which  the  incongruity  is  resolved  and  one  can  "get  the  joke,"  and  to 
dislike  more  bizarre  or  zany  humor  that  does  not  seem  to  "make  sense." 

In  one  study,  for  example,  Ruch  and  his  colleagues  asked  participants  to  indicate 
the  degree  to  which  they  believe  criminals  should  be  punished  for  a  range  of  crimes 
such  as  fraud,  robbery,  rape,  and  murder  (Ruch,  Busse,  and  Hehl,  1996).  As  predicted, 
the  results  revealed  that  the  more  these  individuals  enjoyed  INC-RES  humor,  the 
more  severely  they  thought  criminals  should  be  punished  for  all  types  of  crime  (i.e., 
longer  prison  terms).  If  you  are  charged  with  a  crime,  you  may  wish  to  avoid  a  judge 
who  enjoys  these  kinds  of  jokes!  Not  surprisingly,  since  older  people  generally  tend 
to  be  more  conservative  than  younger  people,  they  also  tend  to  enjoy  INC-RES  jokes 
more  (Ruch  et  al,  1990). 

Sensation  seeking  is  a  personality  trait  involving  a  need  for  varied,  novel,  and 
complex  sensations  and  experiences,  and  a  willingness  to  take  risks.  People  who  are 
high  on  sensation  seeking  tend  to  enjoy  having  new  and  stimulating  experiences 
through  art,  music,  travel,  food,  and  even  taking  psychedelic  drugs  and  living  an 
unconventional  lifestyle.  Research  with  the  3WD  has  shown  that  individuals  with 
high  scores  on  measures  of  sensation  seeking,  as  well  as  related  constructs  such 
as  venturesomeness  and  hedonism,  enjoy  nonsense  humor  significantly  more  than 
incongruity-resolution  humor  (Hehl  and  Ruch,  1985,  1990;  Ruch,  1988).  Enjoyment 
of  NON  humor  has  also  been  found  to  be  positively  correlated  with  the  openness  to 
experience  dimension  of  the  FFM  (Ruch  and  Hehl,  1998).  In  addition,  greater  enjoy- 
ment of  NON  humor  is  weakly  related  to  higher  intelligence,  whereas  enjoyment  of 
INC-RES  humor  tends  to  correlate  with  lower  intelligence  (Ruch,  1992). 

Other  studies  have  examined  preferences  for  stimulus  uncertainty  and  complex- 
ity in  relation  to  these  structural  factors  of  humor  appreciation.  In  one  study,  partic- 
ipants were  asked  to  wear  prism  glasses  that  distort  the  normal  visual  field  by  flipping 

14  7     •     PERSONALITY    APPROACHES    TO    THE    SENSE    OF    HUMOR 

it  upside-down  or  left-to-right.  Those  with  higher  funniness  ratings  of  NON  humor 
kept  the  glasses  on  for  a  longer  time  and  moved  around  more  while  wearing  them, 
indicating  a  greater  willingness  to  experiment  with  this  novel  experience  (Ruch  and 
Hehl,  1998).  Enjoyment  of  NON  humor  was  also  shown  to  be  significantly  corre- 
lated with  preference  for  more  complex  and  abstract  forms  of  art,  whereas  enjoyment 
of  INC-RES  humor  was  related  to  preference  for  simpler,  more  representational  types 
of  art.  When  research  participants  were  instructed  to  arrange  black  and  white  plastic 
squares  into  an  aesthetically  pleasing  configuration,  the  productions  of  individuals 
with  greater  appreciation  of  NON  humor  were  judged  to  be  more  complex  (Ruch 
and  Hehl,  1998). 

Overall,  then,  the  two  humor  structures  appear  to  partly  represent  the  opposite 
poles  of  some  personality  dimensions  (e.g.,  simplicity-complexity),  while  also  partly 
relating  to  entirely  different  dimensions.  In  particular,  INC-RES  humor  tends  to 
correlate  with  conservative  and  authoritarian  attitudes  and  values,  whereas  NON 
humor  relates  to  variables  involving  imagination  and  fantasy.  The  relation  between 
conservative  attitudes  and  values  and  the  enjoyment  of  INC-RES  humor  is  likely  due 
to  the  fact  that  stereotypical  attitudes  (e.g.,  about  particular  ethnic  groups)  need  to 
be  invoked  in  order  to  resolve  the  incongruity  of  most  of  these  kinds  of  jokes.  Indi- 
viduals with  more  conservative  attitudes  may  have  easier  access  to  the  information 
required  for  resolving  the  incongruity  and  may  also  derive  greater  satisfaction  from 
the  resulting  support  that  is  provided  to  their  belief  systems.  On  the  other  hand,  the 
stronger  association  of  imagination  and  fantasy  with  enjoyment  of  NON  humor  is 
likely  explained  by  the  fact  that  this  type  of  humor  involves  a  greater  deviation  from 
reality  and  requires  a  willingness  to  accept  improbable  events  and  enter  the  world  of 

With  regard  to  the  content  factor  of  sexual  humor,  research  with  the  3WD  indi- 
cates that  enjoyment  of  this  category  of  humor  relates  most  strongly  to  the  tough- 
minded  versus  tenderminded  dimension  of  social  attitudes.  Toughmindedness  is 
characterized  by  independent,  rational,  self-sufficient,  and  unfanciful  dispositions, 
whereas  tendermindedness  has  to  do  with  empathy,  concern  for  others,  sentimental- 
ity, tolerance,  and  democratic  values.  Regardless  of  the  structure  of  the  joke  or 
cartoon,  toughminded  individuals  tend  to  show  greater  enjoyment  of  sexual  humor, 
whereas  tenderminded  people  tend  to  rate  such  humor  as  being  more  aversive  (Ruch 
and  Hehl,  1986b).  Moreover,  the  more  highly  a  given  joke  or  cartoon  loads  on  the 
sexual  factor,  the  stronger  the  correlation  between  its  funniness  ratings  and  the  tough- 
mindedness  versus  tendermindedness  dimension,  indicating  that  the  enjoyment  of 
sexual  humor  may  be  viewed  as  an  indicator  of  toughminded  attitudes  (Ruch,  1992). 

Some  additional  correlations  have  been  found  when  SEX  humor  is  divided  into 
NON  and  INC-RES  types  on  the  basis  of  its  structure.  For  example,  enjoyment  of 
sexual  humor  with  the  incongruity-resolution  structure  (INC-RES  SEX)  is  correlated 
positively  with  both  conservatism  and  toughmindedness,  resulting  also  in  positive  cor- 
relations with  variables  such  as  authoritarianism,  intolerance  of  ambiguity,  political 
and  economic  conservatism,  technical  interests,  and  support  for  education  toward  sub- 
missiveness,  and  negative  correlations  with  aesthetic  and  social  interests  (Hehl  and 
Ruch,  1990;  Ruch  and  Hehl,  1986b,  1987).  Thus,  enjoyment  of  sexual  humor  that  is 


based  on  the  incongruity-resolution  structure  (i.e.,  the  most  common  kinds  of  sexual 
jokes  that  people  frequently  tell  in  social  situations)  has  little  to  do  with  sex  per  se,  but 
instead  has  to  do  with  toughminded  conservatism  (authoritarianism).  Interestingly, 
since  authoritarian  individuals  tend  to  have  exaggerated  concerns  about  "sexual 
goings-on,"  their  enjoyment  of  sexual  humor  of  the  incongruity-resolution  type  seems 
to  have  more  to  do  with  rigid  sexual  preoccupations  than  with  sexual  permissiveness 
or  pleasure  (Ruch,  1992). 

On  the  other  hand,  enjoyment  of  sexual  humor  that  is  based  on  the  nonsense 
structure  (NON  SEX),  and  is  therefore  more  fanciful  and  bizarre,  is  unrelated  to 
conservative  attitudes  (although  still  related  to  toughmindedness),  but  is  positively 
correlated  with  scales  of  disinhibition,  sensation  seeking,  hedonism,  interest  in  sex, 
and  sexual  libido,  permissiveness,  pleasure,  and  experience  (Hehl  and  Ruch,  1990; 
Ruch  and  Hehl,  1986b,  1988).  Thus,  it  is  only  the  appreciation  of  sexual  humor  of 
the  nonsense  structure  type  that  is  related  to  positive  sexual  attitudes  and  experience. 

In  summary,  Ruch's  research  with  the  3  WD  has  gone  a  long  way  in  clarifying  the 
nature  of  individual  differences  in  appreciation  of  jokes  and  cartoons.  An  important 
finding  is  that  people's  enjoyment  of  these  forms  of  humor  is  determined  not  so  much 
by  the  content  but  by  the  structure  of  the  humor.  In  particular,  individuals  tend  to 
respond  quite  differently  to  jokes  and  cartoons  in  which  the  incongruity  is  resolved 
and  there  is  a  sense  of  "getting  the  joke"  versus  those  in  which  the  incongruity  is  unre- 
solved and  which  might  be  described  as  bizarre,  fanciful,  off-the-wall,  or  zany.  Sexual 
topics  are  the  only  content  domain  in  humor  for  which  individuals  show  consistent 
response  patterns. 

This  research  also  indicates  that  there  is  truth  to  the  long-held  view  that  the  type 
of  jokes  a  person  enjoys  tells  us  something  about  his  or  her  personality.  However,  the 
particular  personality  traits  associated  with  humor  appreciation  are  not  as  self-evident 
as  one  might  expect.  It  may  be  surprising  to  many  that  people  who  enjoy  the  sorts  of 
jokes  that  are  most  commonly  told  in  social  contexts  (i.e.,  incongruity-resolution 
jokes)  tend  to  be  individuals  with  conservative  values  and  attitudes.  When  such  jokes 
are  of  a  sexual  nature,  their  enjoyment  also  indicates  toughminded,  unsympathetic, 
intolerant,  and  authoritarian  attitudes.  On  the  other  hand,  the  enjoyment  of  the  more 
bizarre  and  fanciful  nonsense  humor  (which  is  more  likely  to  be  encountered  in  car- 
toons, literature,  and  films  than  in  canned  jokes)  indicates  greater  openness,  tolerance 
for  ambiguity,  sensation  seeking,  intelligence,  and  enjoyment  of  novelty  and  com- 
plexity. When  this  sort  of  humor  contains  sexual  themes,  its  enjoyment  indicates  more 
liberal  (although  still  toughminded)  attitudes  and  greater  sexual  permissiveness  and 


The  humor  appreciation  approach  to  conceptualizing  and  measuring  sense  of 
humor,  discussed  in  the  previous  section,  focuses  on  canned  jokes  and  cartoons  which, 
as  I  have  pointed  out  in  earlier  chapters,  comprise  only  a  small  fraction  of  the  forms 
of  humor  that  people  encounter  in  their  daily  lives.  Moreover,  this  approach  is  limited 

6  7     •     PERSONALITY    APPROACHES    TO    THE    SENSE    OF    HUMOR 

to  people's  enjoyment  of  these  types  of  humor,  and  does  not  include  their  tendency 
to  create  humor  spontaneously  and  to  amuse  other  people  in  their  everyday  lives. 
Consequently,  this  approach  to  sense  of  humor,  although  it  has  produced  many  inter- 
esting research  findings,  seems  to  address  only  a  limited  aspect  of  the  many  ways  indi- 
viduals may  habitually  differ  from  one  another  in  regard  to  humor. 

In  the  mid-1970s,  researchers  began  to  develop  self-report  measures  of  sense  of 
humor  as  an  alternative  to  the  humor  appreciation  approach,  in  order  to  investigate 
some  of  these  other  humor-related  individual-difference  dimensions.  This  change  in 
methodology  was  associated  with  a  shift  in  interest  toward  the  everyday  functions  of 
humor,  including  its  role  in  interpersonal  relationships,  coping  with  stress,  and  mental 
and  physical  health.  These  sorts  of  research  questions  required  measures  that  assess 
the  degree  to  which  people  create,  enjoy,  and  engage  in  humor  in  their  daily  lives, 
and  researchers  with  this  perspective  began  to  question  whether  humor  appreciation 
measures  were  appropriate  for  these  purposes  (Lefcourt  and  Martin,  1986). 

Although  the  humor  appreciation  approach  provided  a  great  deal  of  interesting 
information  about  the  personality  traits  of  individuals  who  enjoy  particular  types  of 
humor  (and  indeed,  Ruch  was  just  beginning  to  conduct  his  more  systematic  research 
on  this  topic  around  the  same  time),  this  approach  did  not  seem  to  capture  some  of 
the  dimensions  of  sense  of  humor  that  were  of  interest  to  this  new  generation  of 
researchers.  The  fact  that  an  individual  rates  jokes  and  cartoons  as  funny  does  not 
necessarily  mean  that  he  or  she  engages  in  humor  in  daily  life.  Indeed,  in  a  large  mul- 
titrait-multimethod  study  of  sense  of  humor,  Elisha  Babad  (1974)  found  no  relation- 
ship between  individuals'  scores  on  humor  appreciation  tests  and  either  peer-  or 
self-ratings  of  their  tendency  to  appreciate,  produce,  or  reproduce  humor  in  their 
daily  lives.  In  contrast,  self-ratings  were  significantly  correlated  with  peer-ratings  of 
these  dimensions  of  sense  of  humor. 

Thus,  it  appeared  that  self-report  measures  may  be  a  more  valid  approach  for 
assessing  certain  aspects  of  sense  of  humor  that  are  not  tapped  by  humor  apprecia- 
tion tests.  An  initial  concern  of  researchers  was  that  self-report  humor  tests  might  be 
particularly  susceptible  to  a  social  desirability  bias.  In  other  words,  because  a  sense  of 
humor  is  such  a  desirable  characteristic,  research  participants  might  not  be  objective 
when  rating  their  own  sense  of  humor  and  might  tend  to  overestimate  it.  Although 
this  may  well  occur  when  people  are  asked  to  rate  their  overall  sense  of  humor,  sub- 
sequent research  indicates  that  questions  focusing  on  specific  humor-related  behav- 
iors or  attitudes  do  not  seem  to  be  strongly  contaminated  by  social  desirability 
(Lefcourt  and  Martin,  1986).  Over  the  years,  a  number  of  different  self-report  scales 
have  been  developed,  each  designed  to  measure  a  somewhat  different  component  or 
aspect  of  sense  of  humor.  In  the  following  sections,  I  will  discuss  a  few  of  the  more 
widely  used  measures  (for  a  more  complete  listing,  see  Ruch,  1998b). 

Svebak's  Sense  of  Humor  Questionnaire 

Norwegian  psychologist  Sven  Svebak  (1974a,  1974b),  now  at  the  Norwegian  Uni- 
versity of  Science  and  Technology  in  Trondheim,  was  one  of  the  first  researchers  to 


break  with  the  tradition  of  focusing  on  humor  appreciation  using  funniness  ratings  of 
jokes  and  cartoons,  and  initiated  the  measurement  of  sense  of  humor  using  self-report 
questionnaires.  In  one  of  the  earliest  articles  to  specifically  present  a  theory  of  sense 
of  humor  as  a  personality  trait,  Svebak  (1974b)  observed  that  smooth  social  func- 
tioning requires  the  construction  of  a  shared,  rational  "social  world."  However,  this 
shared  perspective  on  the  world  is  somewhat  arbitrary,  and  can  also  be  constraining 
and  stifling.  Sense  of  humor,  like  creativity,  is  "the  ability  to  imagine  .  . .  irrational 
social  worlds,  and  to  behave  according  to  such  fantasies  within  the  existing  (real)  social 
frame  in  such  a  way  that  the  latter  is  not  brought  into  a  state  of  collapse"  (Svebak, 
1974b,  p.  99).  Thus,  "humor  may  be  said  to  be  a  defense  against  the  monotony  of 
culture  more  than  against  bodily  displeasure"  (p.  100). 

Svebak  suggested  that  individual  differences  in  sense  of  humor  involve  variations 
in  three  separate  dimensions:  (1)  meta-message  sensitivity,  or  the  ability  to  take  an  irra- 
tional, mirthful  perspective  on  situations,  seeing  the  social  world  as  it  might  be  rather 
than  as  it  is;  (2)  personal  liking  of  humor  and  the  humorous  role;  and  (3)  emotional  per- 
missiveness, or  the  tendency  to  laugh  frequently  in  a  wide  range  of  situations.  With 
regard  to  the  components  of  humor  that  I  have  discussed  in  earlier  chapters,  the  first 
of  these  dimensions  relates  primarily  to  the  cognitive  component,  having  to  do  with 
a  nonserious  outlook  and  an  ability  to  shift  perspective  in  a  creative  manner.  The 
second  dimension  involves  playful  attitudes  and  a  lack  of  defensiveness  toward  humor, 
and  the  third  relates  to  the  positive  emotion  of  mirth  and  its  expression  through 

Svebak  (1974a)  constructed  the  Sense  of  Humor  Questionnaire  (SHQ)  to 
measure  individual  differences  in  each  of  the  three  dimensions  posited  in  his  theory, 
with  seven  items  for  each  dimension.  Examples  of  the  items  in  each  subscale  are  as 
follows:  (1)  metamessage  sensitivity  (M):  "I  can  usually  find  something  comical,  witty, 
or  humorous  in  most  situations";  (2)  liking  of  humor  (L):  "It  is  my  impression  that 
those  who  try  to  be  funny  really  do  it  to  hide  their  lack  of  self-confidence"  (dis- 
agreement with  this  statement  results  in  higher  scores  on  the  scale);  and  (3)  emotional 
expressiveness  (E):  "If  I  find  a  situation  very  comical,  I  find  it  very  hard  to  keep  a 
straight  face  even  when  nobody  else  seems  to  think  it's  funny."  Individuals  complet- 
ing the  measure  are  instructed  to  rate  the  degree  to  which  each  item  is  descriptive  of 
them,  using  a  four-point  Like rt- type  scale.  Initial  research  revealed  moderate  corre- 
lations between  the  M  and  L  and  the  M  and  E  dimensions,  and  no  correlation  between 
L  and  E,  indicating  that  the  three  dimensions  were  relatively  independent  of  one 

Subsequent  research  using  this  measure  indicated  acceptable  psychometric 
properties  (reliability  and  validity)  for  the  M  and  L  scales,  but  inadequate  values  for 
the  E  scale  (Lefcourt  and  Martin,  1986).  In  studies  employing  this  measure,  there- 
fore, researchers  tended  to  use  only  the  first  two  subscales.  Support  for  the  validity 
of  these  two  scales  has  been  provided  by  significant  correlations  with  peer  ratings  of 
humor,  as  well  as  with  other  self-report  humor  tests  (to  be  described  below).  The 
measure  was  used  in  research  on  stress-buffering  effects  of  sense  of  humor,  which  I 
will  discuss  in  Chapter  9.  Svebak  (1996)  later  published  a  shorter,  six-item  version  of 


the  SHQ  (SHQ-6)  which  comprises  three  items  each  from  the  original  M  and  L 
scales.  These  six  items  were  found  to  form  a  single  factor  in  a  factor  analysis  of  SHQ 
data  from  nearly  1000  participants,  and  reliability  analysis  of  the  scale  revealed  a  good 
internal  consistency.  The  SHQ-6  has  also  been  used  in  research  on  humor  and  stress 
(Svebak,  Gotestam,  and  Jensen,  2004),  and  Svebak  (1996)  recommended  its  use  in 
large-scale  survey  research  in  which  a  short  measure  of  sense  of  humor  is  required. 

The  Situational  Humor  Response  Questionnaire 

Herbert  Lefcourt  and  I  developed  the  Situational  Humor  Response  Question- 
naire (SHRQ)  at  the  University  of  Waterloo  for  use  in  our  research  on  the  stress- 
moderating  effects  of  sense  of  humor  (R.  A.  Martin  and  Lefcourt,  1984).  In  developing 
this  scale,  we  focused  particularly  on  the  emotional-expressive  component  of  humor, 
that  is,  smiling  and  laughter.  Thus,  we  defined  sense  of  humor  as  the  frequency  with 
which  a  person  smiles,  laughs,  and  otherwise  displays  amusement  in  a  wide  variety  of 
situations.  In  adopting  this  definition,  we  were  making  the  assumption  that  overt 
expressions  of  smiling  and  laughter  are  indicators  of  the  emotion  of  mirth  that  is 
elicited  by  the  perception,  creation,  and  enjoyment  of  humor  in  one's  daily  life. 

The  scale  comprises  18  items  that  present  participants  with  brief  descriptions  of 
situations  (e.g.,  "if  you  were  eating  in  a  restaurant  with  some  friends  and  the  waiter 
accidentally  spilled  a  drink  on  you").  These  include  both  pleasant  and  unpleasant  sit- 
uations, ranging  from  specific  and  structured  to  general  and  unstructured,  and  from 
relatively  common  to  relatively  unusual.  For  each  item,  respondents  are  asked  to  rate 
the  degree  to  which  they  would  be  likely  to  laugh  in  such  a  situation,  using  five 
response  options  ranging  from  "I  would  not  have  been  particularly  amused"  to  "I 
would  have  laughed  heartily."  In  addition  to  the  18  situational  items,  the  scale  con- 
tains three  self-descriptive  items  relating  to  the  frequency  with  which  the  participant 
generally  laughs  and  smiles  in  a  wide  range  of  situations. 

The  SHRQ  has  been  found  to  have  acceptable  internal  consistency  and  test-retest 
reliability  (Lefcourt  and  Martin,  1986).  Males  and  females  typically  do  not  obtain  dif- 
ferent mean  scores.  The  validity  support  for  the  SHRQ  is  quite  extensive  (see 
Lefcourt  and  Martin,  1986;  R.  A.  Martin,  1996).  For  example,  individuals  with  higher 
scores  on  the  SHRQ  displayed  higher  frequency  and  duration  of  spontaneous  laugh- 
ter during  unstructured  interviews  and  also  recorded  more  frequent  daily  laughter  in 
three-day  diaries  (R.  A.  Martin  and  Kuiper,  1999).  SHRQ  scores  also  have  been  found 
to  correlate  significantly  with  peer  ratings  of  participants'  frequency  of  laughter  and 
tendency  to  use  humor  in  coping  with  stress.  In  addition,  scores  have  correlated 
significantly  with  the  rated  funniness  of  monologues  created  by  participants  in  the 
laboratory.  Individuals  with  higher  SHRQ  scores  were  also  found  to  make  more  spon- 
taneously funny  comments  in  a  nonhumorous  creativity  task.  The  SHRQ  is  uncorre- 
lated  with  measures  of  social  desirability,  providing  evidence  of  discriminant  validity 
(Lefcourt  and  Martin,  1986).  The  measure  has  been  used  extensively  in  research  on 
sense  of  humor  in  relation  to  mental  and  physical  health,  which  will  be  discussed  in 
Chapters  9  and  10. 


Lambert  Deckers  and  Willibald  Ruch  (1992b)  found  no  significant  correlations 
between  the  SHRQ  and  either  the  total  score  or  the  three  factor  scores  on  Ruch's 
3WD  measure  of  humor  appreciation.  Thus,  as  Lefcourt  and  I  (1986)  had  hypothe- 
sized, tests  of  humor  appreciation  employing  respondents'  ratings  of  the  funniness  or 
aversiveness  of  jokes  and  cartoons  represent  a  completely  different  construct  from  that 
assessed  by  self-report  humor  measures  such  as  the  SHRQ.  Individuals  might  rate 
particular  types  of  jokes  and  cartoons  on  the  3  WD  as  being  very  humorous  without 
necessarily  engaging  in  much  humor  in  their  daily  lives. 

On  the  other  hand,  the  SHRQ  has  been  found  to  be  positively  correlated  with 
extraversion  (Ruch  and  Deckers,  1993),  indicating  that  individuals  who  tend  to  laugh 
readily  in  a  range  of  situations  (as  indicated  by  high  scores  on  the  SHRQ)  tend  also 
to  be  characterized  by  extraverted  traits  such  as  sociable,  people-oriented,  active, 
talkative,  optimistic,  fun-loving,  and  joyful.  In  addition,  the  SHRQ  is  correlated 
with  sensation-seeking,  a  variable  that  is  also  associated  with  extraversion,  indicating 
that  individuals  who  tend  to  laugh  frequently  also  tend  to  seek  highly  arousing 
thrills,  adventure,  and  varied  experiences,  and  are  easily  bored  (Deckers  and  Ruch, 
1992a).  Interestingly,  social  drinkers  with  higher  scores  on  the  SHRQ  have  also  been 
found  to  have  higher  rates  of  alcohol  consumption  (Lowe  and  Taylor,  1993).  This 
finding  may  also  be  a  function  of  extraversion,  since  other  research  indicates  that 
extraverted  individuals  tend  to  drink  more  alcohol  than  do  introverts  (M.  Cook  et  al., 

The  SHRQ  has  been  criticized  for  defining  sense  of  humor  purely  in  terms  of 
laughter  frequency  (Thorson,  1990).  Indeed,  as  I  have  acknowledged,  laughter  can 
occur  without  humor,  and  there  can  be  humor  without  laughter  (R.  A.  Martin,  1996). 
Nonetheless,  correlations  between  the  SHRQ  and  various  measures  of  personality  and 
well-being  are  comparable  to  those  found  with  other  self-report  humor  measures  such 
as  the  Coping  Humor  Scale  (to  be  discussed  next),  suggesting  that  it  assesses  a  more 
general  sense  of  humor  trait  than  simply  the  tendency  to  laugh.  A  study  by  Lourey 
and  McLachlan  (2003)  indicates  that  the  SHRQ  relates  to  perceptions  of  humor  and 
not  merely  laughter  frequency.  Moreover,  research  showing  positive  correlations 
between  participants'  scores  on  the  SHRQ  and  their  humor  production  ability  indi- 
cates that  it  taps  into  humor  creation  and  not  just  laughter  responsiveness.  This 
broader  construct  validity  of  the  measure  may  be  due  to  the  inclusion  of  a  number  of 
items  describing  unpleasant  or  mildly  stressful  situations.  Consequently,  more  than 
merely  assessing  the  frequency  of  laughter  per  se,  the  SHRQ  appears  to  address  the 
tendency  to  maintain  a  humorous  perspective  when  faced  with  unpleasant  or  poten- 
tially embarrassing  events. 

A  potentially  more  serious  shortcoming  of  this  measure  is  that  the  situations 
described  in  the  items  are  specific  to  university  students'  experiences  (and  even  more 
particularly  those  of  Canadian  students),  and  it  is  therefore  less  suitable  for  other  pop- 
ulations. Furthermore,  the  situations  described  in  the  items  have  become  somewhat 
dated  over  time  and  may  be  difficult  for  many  people  to  relate  to  today.  For  these 
reasons,  the  SHRQ  would  likely  benefit  from  a  careful  revision  if  it  is  to  be  used  in 
further  research. 


The  Coping  Humor  Scale 

The  Coping  Humor  Scale  (CHS)  is  another  measure  that  Herbert  Lefcourt  and 
I  developed  in  the  context  of  our  research  on  sense  of  humor  as  a  stress-moderating 
personality  trait  (R.  A.  Martin  and  Lefcourt,  1983).  Instead  of  attempting  to  assess  a 
broad  sense  of  humor  construct,  this  test  was  designed  to  measure  more  narrowly  the 
degree  to  which  individuals  report  using  humor  in  coping  with  stress.  Thus,  it  focused 
specifically  on  one  particular  function  of  humor.  The  CHS  contains  seven  items  that 
are  self-descriptive  statements  such  as  "I  have  often  found  that  my  problems  have  been 
greatly  reduced  when  I  tried  to  find  something  funny  in  them"  and  "I  can  usually  find 
something  to  laugh  or  joke  about  even  in  trying  situations."  Research  with  the  CHS 
has  demonstrated  marginally  acceptable  internal  consistency  and  acceptable  test-retest 
reliability  (R.  A.  Martin,  1996). 

There  is  also  considerable  support  for  the  construct  validity  of  this  scale  (sum- 
marized by  Lefcourt  and  Martin,  1986;  R.  A.  Martin,  1996).  For  example,  scores  on 
the  CHS  have  correlated  significantly  with  peer  ratings  of  individuals'  tendency  to 
use  humor  to  cope  with  stress  and  not  take  themselves  too  seriously.  In  addition,  the 
CHS  was  significantly  correlated  with  the  rated  funniness  of  participants'  humorous 
monologues  created  while  watching  a  stressful  film,  but  not  with  the  spontaneous  fun- 
niness of  responses  in  a  nonstressful  creativity  task,  indicating  that  it  specifically  relates 
to  the  production  of  humor  in  stressful  situations.  In  another  study,  dental  patients 
with  higher  scores  on  the  CHS  were  found  to  engage  in  significantly  more  joking  and 
laughter  before  undergoing  dental  surgery  (Trice  and  Price-Greathouse,  1986). 

The  measure  is  generally  uncorrelated  with  measures  of  social  desirability, 
thereby  lending  discriminant  validity  support.  With  regard  to  other  personality  traits, 
the  CHS  has  been  found  to  be  positively  related  to  self-esteem,  stability  of  self- 
concept,  realistic  cognitive  appraisals,  optimism,  sense  of  coherence,  and  extraversion, 
and  negatively  related  to  dysfunctional  attitudes  and  neuroticism  (R.  A.  Martin,  1996). 
Thus,  it  seems  to  primarily  assess  humor  in  an  extraverted,  emotionally  stable  type  of 
personality.  Research  using  the  CHS  in  relation  to  mental  and  physical  health  will  be 
discussed  in  more  detail  in  Chapters  9  and  10.  The  CHS  does  have  some  psycho- 
metric limitations,  however,  particularly  a  relatively  weak  internal  consistency 
resulting  from  low  item-total  correlations  of  some  items. 

The  Humor  Styles  Questionnaire 

Many  of  the  self-report  humor  scales  were  developed  for  research  on  humor  in 
relation  to  mental  and  physical  health,  and  nearly  all  of  these  were  based  on  the 
assumption  that  a  sense  of  humor  is  inherently  beneficial  to  health  and  well-being. 
However,  as  we  have  seen  in  earlier  chapters  of  this  book,  humor  does  not  always 
seem  to  be  used  in  psychologically  beneficial  ways.  For  example,  the  hostile,  manip- 
ulative, and  coercive  uses  of  humor  that  were  discussed  in  Chapter  5  do  not  seem  to 
be  very  conducive  to  healthy  interpersonal  relationships.  Indeed,  it  could  be  argued 
that  humor  is  essentially  neutral  with  regard  to  mental  health:  its  implications  for 
health  depend  on  how  it  is  used  by  the  individual  in  interacting  with  other  people. 


Since  most  humor  measures  do  not  distinguish  between  positive  and  negative  uses  of 
humor,  however,  they  are  limited  in  their  usefulness  for  studying  potentially  detri- 
mental aspects. 

Recently,  my  students  and  I  have  developed  the  Humor  Styles  Questionnaire 
(HSQ),  a  measure  designed  to  distinguish  between  potentially  beneficial  and  detri- 
mental humor  styles  (R.  A.  Martin  et  al.,  2003).  The  focus  of  this  measure  is  on  the 
functions  for  which  people  spontaneously  use  humor  in  their  everyday  lives,  particu- 
larly in  the  domains  of  social  interaction  and  coping  with  life  stress.  Based  on  a  review 
of  past  theoretical  and  empirical  literature,  we  hypothesized  four  main  dimensions, 
two  of  which  were  considered  to  be  relatively  healthy  or  adaptive  (affiliative  and  self- 
enhancing  humor)  and  two  relatively  unhealthy  and  potentially  detrimental  (aggres- 
sive and  self-defeating  humor). 

Affiliative  humor  refers  to  the  tendency  to  say  funny  things,  to  tell  jokes,  and  to 
engage  in  spontaneous  witty  banter,  in  order  to  amuse  others,  to  facilitate  relation- 
ships, and  to  reduce  interpersonal  tensions  (e.g.,  "I  enjoy  making  people  laugh").  This 
is  hypothesized  to  be  an  essentially  nonhostile,  tolerant  use  of  humor  that  is  affirm- 
ing of  self  and  others  and  presumably  enhances  interpersonal  cohesiveness.  Self- 
enhancing  humor  refers  to  the  tendency  to  maintain  a  humorous  outlook  on  life  even 
when  one  is  not  with  other  people,  to  be  frequently  amused  by  the  incongruities  of 
life,  to  maintain  a  humorous  perspective  even  in  the  face  of  stress  or  adversity,  and  to 
use  humor  in  coping  (e.g.,  "My  humorous  outlook  on  life  keeps  me  from  getting 
overly  upset  or  depressed  about  things").  This  humor  style  is  closely  related  to  the 
construct  assessed  by  the  earlier  Coping  Humor  Scale. 

On  the  other  hand,  aggressive  humor  is  the  tendency  to  use  humor  for  the  purpose 
of  criticizing  or  manipulating  others,  as  in  sarcasm,  teasing,  ridicule,  derision,  or  dis- 
paragement humor,  as  well  as  the  use  of  potentially  offensive  (e.g.,  racist  or  sexist) 
forms  of  humor  (e.g.,  "If  someone  makes  a  mistake,  I  will  often  tease  them  about  it"). 
It  also  includes  the  compulsive  expression  of  humor  even  when  it  is  socially  inappro- 
priate. This  type  of  humor  is  viewed  as  a  means  of  enhancing  the  self  at  the  expense 
of  one's  relationships  with  others. 

Finally,  self-defeating  humor  involves  the  use  of  excessively  self-disparaging  humor, 
attempts  to  amuse  others  by  doing  or  saying  funny  things  at  one's  own  expense,  and 
laughing  along  with  others  when  being  ridiculed  or  disparaged  (e.g.,  "I  often  try  to 
make  people  like  or  accept  me  more  by  saying  something  funny  about  my  own  weak- 
nesses, blunders,  or  faults").  Thus,  it  deals  with  the  use  of  humor  to  ingratiate  oneself 
with  others,  as  discussed  in  Chapter  5.  It  also  involves  the  use  of  humor  as  a  form  of 
defensive  denial,  to  hide  one's  underlying  negative  feelings  or  avoid  dealing  con- 
structively with  problems.  This  style  of  humor  is  seen  as  an  attempt  to  gain  the  atten- 
tion and  approval  of  others  at  one's  own  expense. 

It  is  important  to  note  that,  although  the  HSQ  assesses  the  way  people  "use" 
humor  in  their  everyday  lives,  no  assumption  was  made  that  these  uses  are  consciously 
or  strategically  chosen.  Instead,  we  assumed  that  people  tend  to  engage  in  humor 
quite  spontaneously  and  are  often  unaware  of  its  social  or  psychological  functions  in 
a  given  situation.  Thus,  the  items  had  to  be  worded  quite  carefully  to  address  the 


relevant  functions  indirectly,  much  like  items  on  a  self-report  measure  of  defense 

The  HSQ  was  developed  using  construct-based  test  construction  procedures  over 
a  series  of  studies  with  fairly  large  samples  of  participants  ranging  in  age  from  14  to 
87  years  (R.  A.  Martin  et  al.,  2003).  This  methodology  resulted  in  four  stable  factors 
that  were  corroborated  by  means  of  confirmatory  factor  analysis.  The  final  measure 
contains  four  eight-item  scales,  each  of  which  has  demonstrated  good  internal 
consistency.  The  HSQ  has  been  translated  into  a  number  of  languages  and  adminis- 
tered to  participants  in  various  countries  in  North  and  South  America,  Europe,  and 
Asia,  and  the  four-factor  structure  has  been  replicated  in  all  cultures  studied  to  date 
(Chen  and  Martin,  in  press;  Kazarian  and  Martin,  2004;  in  press;  Saroglou  and  Scariot, 

With  regard  to  relationships  among  the  scales  themselves,  moderate  correlations 
are  typically  found  between  self-enhancing  and  affiliative  humor  and  between  aggres- 
sive and  self-defeating  humor,  indicating  that  the  two  positive  and  the  two  negative 
styles  of  humor,  while  conceptually  and  empirically  distinguishable,  tend  to  covary. 
In  addition,  aggressive  humor  tends  to  be  weakly  correlated  with  both  affiliative  and 
self-enhancing  humor,  suggesting  that  even  positive  styles  of  humor  may  include  some 
aggressive  elements. 

Research  conducted  to  date  has  provided  promising  evidence  for  the  construct 
validity  of  each  scale,  as  well  as  discriminant  validity  among  the  four  scales  (P.  Doris, 
2004;  Kazarian  and  Martin,  2004;  Kuiper  et  al.,  2004;  R.  A.  Martin  et  al.,  2003; 
Saroglou  and  Scariot,  2002).  For  example,  scores  on  each  of  the  scales  have  been  found 
to  correlate  significantly  with  peer  ratings  of  the  corresponding  dimensions.  The  affil- 
iative and  self-enhancing  humor  scales  also  tend  to  be  positively  correlated  with  other 
well-validated  self-report  humor  measures  such  as  the  SHQ,  SHRQ,  and  CHS, 
whereas  the  aggressive  and  self-defeating  humor  scales  are  generally  unrelated  to 
other  humor  measures,  indicating  that  these  two  presumably  detrimental  styles  of 
humor  are  not  well-measured  with  other  tests. 

One  self-report  measure,  the  Multidimensional  Sense  of  Humor  Scale  (MSHS; 
Thorson  and  Powell,  199  3  a)  has  been  shown  to  be  significantly  positively  correlated 
with  all  four  HSQ  scales,  indicating  that  this  earlier  humor  test  does  not  distinguish 
between  potentially  beneficial  and  detrimental  uses  of  humor,  making  it  somewhat 
less  useful  for  investigating  the  role  of  humor  in  mental  health.  Not  surprisingly, 
scores  on  the  self-enhancing  humor  scale  tend  to  be  quite  strongly  correlated  with 
scores  on  the  conceptually  similar  Coping  Humor  Scale  (Kuiper  et  al.,  2004).  Since 
the  self-enhancing  humor  scale  has  better  reliability  than  the  CHS,  this  newer 
measure  seems  to  be  a  better  instrument  for  use  in  research  on  humor  as  a  coping 

With  regard  to  other  personality  and  mood  variables,  the  two  measures  of 
"healthy"  styles  of  humor  are  generally  positively  related  to  indicators  of  psycholog- 
ical health  and  well-being  such  as  self-esteem,  positive  emotions,  optimism,  social 
support,  and  intimacy;  and  negatively  related  to  negative  moods  such  as  depression 
and  anxiety.  In  contrast,  aggressive  humor  is  positively  correlated  with  measures  of 


hostility  and  aggression  and  negatively  correlated  with  relationship  satisfaction.  Sim- 
ilarly, self-defeating  humor  is  positively  related  to  measures  of  psychological  distress 
and  dysfunction,  including  depression,  anxiety,  hostility,  and  psychiatric  symptoms, 
and  negatively  related  with  self-esteem,  psychological  well-being,  social  support,  and 
relationship  satisfaction.  These  findings  support  the  view  that  the  different  humor 
styles  are  differentially  related  to  aspects  of  psychological  well-being. 

The  four  scales  have  also  been  found  to  correlate  differentially  with  measures  of 
the  FFM,  which  posits  five  major  dimensions  accounting  for  most  of  the  variance  in 
personality  traits  (R.  A.  Martin  et  al.,  2003;  Saroglou  and  Scariot,  2002).  Although 
there  were  some  differences  in  the  patterns  of  correlations  found  among  English- 
speaking  Canadian  and  French-speaking  Belgian  participants,  extraversion  was  gen- 
erally found  to  be  positively  correlated  with  affiliative,  aggressive,  and  (more  weakly) 
self-enhancing  humor,  but  unrelated  to  self-defeating  humor.  Neuroticism,  on  the 
other  hand,  was  unrelated  to  affiliative  humor,  negatively  related  to  self-enhancing 
humor,  and  positively  related  to  both  aggressive  and  self-defeating  humor.  In  turn, 
affiliative  and  self-enhancing  humor  were  both  positively  correlated  with  openness  to 
experience,  while  aggressive  and  self-defeating  humor  were  both  negatively  correlated 
with  agreeableness  and  conscientiousness.  Thus,  these  four  styles  of  humor  appear  to 
be  located  in  quite  different  regions  of  the  personality  space  represented  by  the  FFM, 
suggesting  that  they  represent  disparate  ways  in  which  people  with  differing  person- 
ality traits  express  and  experience  humor  in  their  everyday  lives. 

Some  research  has  also  begun  to  explore  relationships  between  the  HSQ  scales 
and  measures  of  culture-related  personality  traits  such  as  individualism  and  collec- 
tivism (Kazarian  and  Martin,  2004;  in  press).  In  general,  affiliative  humor  appears  to 
be  related  to  the  cultural  orientation  of  collectivism  (which  emphasizes  the  interde- 
pendence of  individuals  with  respect  to  broader  social  groups),  whereas  aggressive 
humor  is  more  related  to  individualism  (which  views  individual  needs  as  taking  prece- 
dence over  group  needs).  Further  cross-cultural  research  is  needed  to  determine 
whether  the  HSQ  dimensions  reflect  different  styles  of  humor  found  in  people  from 
different  cultures.  For  example,  Western  cultures,  which  tend  to  be  more  individual- 
istic, might  be  expected  to  have  more  aggressive  humor  styles,  whereas  people  from 
more  collectivistic  Eastern  cultures  may  be  higher  on  affiliative  humor. 

Interestingly,  although  negligible  differences  are  found  between  men  and  women 
on  the  two  presumably  positive  styles  of  humor,  males  tend  to  have  significantly  higher 
scores  than  females  on  the  two  presumably  detrimental  humor  styles,  suggesting  that 
men  tend  to  use  negative  forms  of  humor  more  than  women  do  (cf.  Crawford  and 
Gressley,  1991).  Older  participants  have  been  found  to  obtain  lower  scores  than 
younger  people  on  both  affiliative  and  aggressive  humor,  suggesting  that  people  may 
have  a  decreasing  tendency  to  engage  in  these  more  extraverted  types  of  humor  as 
they  age.  Among  women,  self-enhancing  humor  was  found  to  be  higher  for  older  than 
younger  individuals,  suggesting  an  increase  in  this  coping  style  of  humor  with  greater 
age  and  life  experience.  Longitudinal  research  is  needed,  however,  to  test  whether 
these  observed  age  differences  are  due  to  developmental  changes  over  the  lifespan  or 
to  cohort  effects. 


Overall,  then,  the  HSQ  assesses  dimensions  of  humor  that  are  not  tapped  by  pre- 
vious tests  and,  in  particular,  it  is  the  first  self-report  measure  to  assess  social  and  psy- 
chological functions  of  humor  that  are  less  desirable  and  potentially  detrimental  to 
well-being.  In  Chapter  9, 1  will  discuss  additional  research  that  has  used  this  measure 
in  the  study  of  humor  and  mental  health. 

The  State-Trait  Cheerfulness  Inventory 

When  we  say  that  someone  has  a  good  sense  of  humor,  we  may  mean  that  the 
person  tends  to  maintain  a  cheerful  mood  and  a  nonserious,  playful  attitude  much  of 
the  time,  even  in  situations  where  other  people  might  be  likely  to  become  distressed. 
This  way  of  conceptualizing  sense  of  humor,  which  focuses  on  the  emotional  com- 
ponent and  the  playful,  nonserious  character  of  humor,  was  proposed  some  time  ago 
by  Howard  Leventhal  and  Martin  Safer  (1977).  More  recently,  Willibald  Ruch  and 
his  colleagues  have  adopted  this  perspective  in  their  investigations  of  trait  cheerful- 
ness, which  they  view  as  the  temperamental  basis  of  sense  of  humor  (for  a  review,  see 
Ruch  and  Kohler,  1998). 

In  this  view,  individual  differences  in  sense  of  humor  are  based  on  presumably 
innate,  habitual  differences  in  cheerfulness,  seriousness,  and  bad  mood.  While  each 
of  these  can  be  viewed  as  temporary  states  or  moods,  individuals  are  assumed  to  differ 
in  traitlike  ways  with  regard  to  how  consistently  they  experience  these  states.  Trait 
cheerfulness  is  an  affective  trait  or  temperament  involving  a  prevalence  of  cheerful 
mood  and  mirth,  a  generally  good-humored  interaction  style,  a  tendency  to  smile  and 
laugh  easily,  and  a  composed  view  of  adverse  life  circumstances.  Trait  seriousness  (versus 
playfulness)  is  a  habitual  frame  of  mind  or  mental  attitude  toward  the  world,  com- 
prising a  tendency  to  perceive  even  everyday  events  as  important,  a  tendency  to  plan 
ahead  and  set  long-range  goals,  a  preference  for  activities  that  have  a  rational  purpose, 
and  a  sober,  straightforward  communication  style  that  avoids  exaggeration  and  irony. 
In  Michael  Apter's  (2001)  terminology  (discussed  in  Chapters  1,  3,  4,  and  5),  this 
relates  to  the  degree  to  which  people  tend  to  be  in  the  telic  (serious,  goal-oriented) 
versus  the  paratelic  (playful,  activity-oriented)  mode.  Individuals  who  would  typically 
be  viewed  as  having  a  sense  of  humor  would  be  those  who  are  low  on  this  trait.  Trait 
bad  mood  is  an  affective  disposition  involving  a  prevalence  of  sad,  despondent,  and  dis- 
tressed moods;  a  generally  ill-humored  interaction  style  (sullen,  grumpy,  grouchy); 
and  a  negative  response  to  cheerfulness-evoking  situations  and  people.  Again,  high- 
humor  people  would  tend  to  be  low  on  this  dimension. 

Ruch  and  his  colleagues  constructed  the  trait  form  of  the  State-Trait  Cheerful- 
ness Inventory  (STCI-T)  to  assess  individual  differences  in  habitual  cheerfulness, 
seriousness,  and  bad  mood  (Ruch,  Kohler,  and  Van  Thriel,  1996).  These  scales  have 
been  shown  to  have  good  internal  consistencies  and  test-retest  reliabilities.  Factor 
analyses  on  data  obtained  in  several  countries  have  consistently  confirmed  the  exis- 
tence of  the  three  distinct  factors.  Cheerfulness  tends  to  be  weakly  negatively  corre- 
lated with  seriousness  and  moderately  negatively  correlated  with  bad  mood,  while 
seriousness  and  bad  mood  are  weakly  positively  correlated.  A  state  version  of  the  State- 


Trait-Cheerfulness  Inventory  (STCI-S)  was  also  constructed  to  assess  the  presence  of 
each  of  the  three  mood  states  over  shorter  periods  of  time  (Ruch,  Kohler,  and  van 
Thriel,  1997). 

A  number  of  studies  have  demonstrated  good  validity  for  the  STCI-T.  Scores  on 
each  of  the  three  trait  scales  were  significantly  correlated  with  peer  ratings  of  the  same 
dimensions  (Ruch,  Kohler,  et  al.,  1996)  and  with  the  corresponding  mood  states  as 
measured  by  the  STCI-S  (Ruch  and  Kohler,  1999).  Studies  have  also  shown  that  indi- 
viduals with  high  scores  on  the  trait  cheerfulness  scale,  as  compared  to  those  with  low 
scores,  are  less  likely  to  develop  a  depressed  mood  and  serious  frame  of  mind  when 
they  are  exposed  to  negative  mood  induction  procedures  such  as  reading  a  melan- 
choly story  or  engaging  in  a  series  of  boring  tasks  in  a  depressing,  windowless  room 
with  black  walls  and  poor  lighting  (Ruch  and  Kohler,  1998,  1999). 

Similarly,  individuals  with  high  trait  cheerfulness  scores,  as  compared  to  those 
with  low  scores,  are  also  more  likely  to  smile  and  laugh  (showing  the  Duchenne 
display  of  genuine  mirth)  and  to  have  enhanced  feelings  of  state  cheerfulness  in  mirth- 
inducing  situations,  such  as  inhalation  of  nitrous  oxide  (laughing  gas),  exposure  to  a 
clowning  experimenter,  or  the  sudden,  unexpected  appearance  of  a  jack-in-the-box 
(Ruch,  1997;  Ruch  and  Kohler,  1998).  These  findings  provide  support  for  the  valid- 
ity of  trait  cheerfulness  as  representing  a  habitually  high  threshold  for  negative  moods 
and  a  low  threshold  for  mirth,  laughter,  and  positive  moods  in  general. 

To  examine  the  validity  of  the  trait  seriousness  scale  of  the  STCI-T,  participants 
in  one  study  were  instructed  to  create  humorous  captions  for  a  series  of  cartoons.  As 
predicted,  individuals  with  lower  scores  on  trait  seriousness  (indicating  greater  habit- 
ual playfulness)  were  found  to  create  a  greater  number  of  humorous  captions,  and 
their  captions  were  rated  as  more  funny,  witty,  and  original  (Ruch  and  Kohler,  1998). 
On  Ruch's  3WD  measure  of  humor  appreciation,  individuals  with  low  (as  opposed 
to  high)  seriousness  scores  tended  to  prefer  nonsense  over  incongruity-resolution 
humor.  In  addition,  higher  seriousness  scores  were  related  to  higher  aversiveness 
ratings  for  all  types  of  humor,  indicating  that  more  serious  individuals  are  more  likely 
to  reject  all  forms  of  humor  (Ruch  and  Kohler,  1998).  These  findings  provided  support 
for  (low)  trait  seriousness  as  a  general  attitude  or  frame  of  mind  characterized  by  a 
more  playful  perspective  and  a  greater  receptiveness  to  humor. 

Studies  have  also  examined  the  relationships  between  the  STCI-T  scales  and 
more  general  personality  dimensions  such  as  the  FFM,  and  models  of  positive  and 
negative  affectivity  (Ruch  and  Kohler,  1998).  Overall,  cheerfulness  was  associated  with 
extraversion/energy,  agreeableness/friendliness,  emotional  stability/low  neuroticism, 
and  positive  affectivity.  Thus  high  trait  cheerfulness  is  a  characteristic  of  agreeable, 
stable,  extraverted  types.  Bad  mood,  in  contrast,  showed  the  opposite  pattern  of  cor- 
relations, but  with  a  stronger  contribution  of  neuroticism  and  negative  affectivity  and 
a  weaker  loading  on  extraversion  and  positive  affectivity.  Thus,  bad  mood  is  charac- 
teristic of  disagreeable,  neurotic  introverts.  Finally,  seriousness  was  consistently  asso- 
ciated with  low  psychoticism/conscientiousness  and  introversion. 

In  summary,  this  temperament-based  approach  provides  an  interesting  perspec- 
tive on  the  meaning  of  sense  of  humor.  In  this  view,  individuals  who  are  typically 


described  as  having  a  "good  sense  of  humor"  tend  to  be  people  who  are  habitually  in 
a  cheerful  mood,  who  maintain  a  playful,  nonserious  attitude  toward  life,  and  who  are 
infrequently  in  a  bad,  grouchy  mood.  Different  styles  of  humor  may  have  to  do  with 
different  combinations  of  the  three  traits.  For  example,  an  acerbic,  caustic  sense  of 
humor  might  involve  low  seriousness,  moderate  cheerfulness,  and  high  bad  mood.  On 
the  other  hand,  people  who  are  easily  amused  at  others'  humor  but  not  very  witty 
themselves  might  be  high  on  cheerfulness,  low  on  bad  mood,  and  relatively  high  on 

Since  trait  cheerfulness  has  been  shown  to  be  a  predictor  of  robustness  of  posi- 
tive mood  in  experimental  studies,  this  construct  also  seems  to  be  a  potentially  useful 
way  of  conceptualizing  sense  of  humor  as  a  trait  that  contributes  to  coping  with  stress 
and  enhancing  psychological  health.  As  Ruch  and  Kohler  (1998,  p.  228)  suggested, 
individuals  who  are  high  on  trait  cheerfulness  may  "have  a  better  'psychological 
immune  system,'  protecting  them  against  the  negative  impact  of  the  annoyances  and 
mishaps  they  meet  in  everyday  life  and  enabling  them  to  maintain  good  humor  under 
adversity."  This  measure  would  therefore  likely  be  useful  in  research  on  physical  and 
mental  health  benefits  of  humor,  particularly  in  the  context  of  humor  as  resilience  to 
psychosocial  stress. 


Some  conceptualizations  of  sense  of  humor  view  it  as  a  form  of  creative  ability 
or  aptitude.  In  this  approach,  the  ability  to  perceive  humorous  incongruities,  to  create 
jokes,  funny  stories,  and  other  humorous  productions,  and  to  make  other  people  laugh 
is  viewed  as  a  skill,  like  the  ability  to  draw  a  picture  or  solve  a  math  problem.  Indi- 
viduals who  are  gifted  with  this  creative  talent  are  presumably  the  amateur  comedi- 
ans who  keep  their  friends  "in  stitches"  and  are  the  "life  of  the  party,"  while  the 
supremely  talented  few  may  become  professional  comedians  and  comedy  writers.  This 
conception  of  sense  of  humor  seems  to  be  most  appropriately  measured  by  means  of 
ability  tests  that  assess  maximal  performance,  rather  than  the  typical  behavior  assessed 
by  self-report  scales.  This  approach  has  been  taken  by  a  few  researchers  over  the  years. 

Alan  Feingold,  a  researcher  affiliated  with  Yale  University,  has  long  been  a  pro- 
ponent of  the  view  of  sense  of  humor  as  a  kind  of  aptitude.  Feingold  (1982,  1983) 
developed  tests  of  humor  perceptiveness  and  humor  achievement  comprising  ques- 
tions about  joke  knowledge,  in  which  participants  were  required  to  complete  famous 

jokes  (e.g.,  "Take  my  wife,  ";  Answer:  "please")  and  identify  the  names  of 

comedians  associated  with  particular  jokes  (e.g.,  "I  get  no  respect"  linked  with  Rodney 
Dangerfield).  Respondents'  scores  on  these  tests  were  based  on  the  number  of  ques- 
tions that  were  answered  correctly.  Scores  on  this  test  were  positively  correlated  with 
intelligence,  and  (not  surprisingly)  individuals  with  high  scores  were  found  to  be  avid 
viewers  of  comedy  television  shows. 

Feingold  and  Mazzella  (1991)  expanded  on  this  earlier  work,  developing  addi- 
tional tests  to  assess  two  proposed  types  of  verbal  humor  ability  or  wittiness:  (1) 


memory  for  humor,  which  they  hypothesized  to  be  akin  to  crystallized  intelligence;  and 
(2)  humor  cognition,  thought  to  be  comparable  to  fluid  intelligence.  Memory  for  humor 
was  assessed  by  tests  of  humor  information  and  joke  knowledge  (similar  to  Feingold's 
earlier  measure  of  humor  perceptiveness),  while  humor  cognition  was  measured  with 
tests  of  humor  reasoning  and  joke  comprehension.  Again,  these  were  all  maximal  per- 
formance tests  in  which  scores  were  based  on  the  number  of  correct  answers.  Their 
research  findings  revealed  significant  correlations  between  traditional  measures  of 
verbal  intelligence  and  the  tests  of  humor  cognition,  whereas  memory  for  humor  was 
not  strongly  related  to  intelligence.  Humor  reasoning  was  also  correlated  with  the 
Remote  Associates  Test,  a  measure  of  creative  thinking. 

In  a  subsequent  article,  Feingold  and  Mazzella  (1993)  suggested  that  verbal  wit- 
tiness  may  be  viewed  as  a  multidimensional  construct  composed  of  the  mental  ability 
dimension  of  humor  cognition,  in  combination  with  social  and  temperamental  factors 
influencing  humor  motivation  and  communication.  Overall,  then,  Feingold  and 
Mazzella's  conceptualization  of  humor  ability  appears  to  be  a  fairly  narrow  construct, 
relating  particularly  to  individuals'  familiarity  with  well-known  jokes  and  popular 
comedians.  However,  the  psychometric  properties  of  their  measures  are  not 
well-established,  and  they  have  not  gained  wide  acceptance  among  other  humor 

Other  humor  production  tests  have  been  developed  by  researchers  over  the  years 
to  examine  individual  differences  in  the  ability  to  create  or  produce  humor.  Most  of 
these  were  designed  for  use  in  individual  studies,  and  they  have  typically  not  been 
standardized.  In  this  approach,  research  participants  are  typically  presented  with 
various  stimuli,  such  as  caption-removed  cartoons  or  silent  movies,  and  are  instructed 
to  make  up  as  many  funny  responses  as  they  can  to  go  with  these  stimuli.  The  fun- 
niness  of  their  responses  is  then  rated  by  the  experimenters,  yielding  a  score  for  humor 
production  ability.  Some  of  these  studies  have  examined  the  relationship  between 
humor  production  ability  and  various  other  personality  traits. 

For  example,  Robert  Turner  (1980)  examined  the  association  between  humor  pro- 
duction ability  and  self-monitoring,  a  personality  trait  having  to  do  with  the  degree 
to  which  individuals  are  sensitive  to  environmental  cues  of  social  appropriateness  and 
regulate  their  behavior  accordingly.  Humor  ability  was  assessed  in  two  ways.  In  one 
of  these,  participants  were  asked  to  make  up  witty  captions  to  go  with  a  series  of  car- 
toons in  which  the  original  captions  had  been  removed.  In  the  second  method,  par- 
ticipants were  seated  at  a  table  on  which  were  placed  a  number  of  miscellaneous 
objects,  such  as  a  tennis  shoe,  a  wristwatch,  and  a  box  of  crayons.  The  participants 
were  instructed  to  create  a  three-minute  comedy  monologue,  describing  these 
objects  in  a  funny  way,  after  being  given  only  30  seconds  to  collect  their  thoughts. 
In  both  methods,  the  participants'  humorous  productions  were  rated  by  judges  for 

The  results  revealed  that,  as  predicted,  individuals  with  higher  scores  on  a 
measure  of  self-monitoring,  as  compared  to  those  with  lower  scores,  produced 
responses  that  were  rated  as  significantly  more  witty  on  both  humor  production  tests. 
The  author  suggested  that  the  tendency  to  attend  to  and  respond  to  social  cues  and 


the  reactions  of  others  enables  people  who  are  high  in  self-monitoring  to  develop  skill 
in  creating  and  delivering  humor  successfully  over  the  course  of  their  lives.  In  con- 
trast, those  who  are  low  in  self-monitoring,  because  they  do  not  attend  as  much  to 
the  responses  of  others,  do  not  learn  as  readily  from  those  responses  and  therefore 
do  not  develop  as  much  skill  at  producing  humor.  Consistent  with  these  results,  other 
research  has  found  a  positive  correlation  between  self-monitoring  and  a  self-report 
measure  of  the  tendency  to  initiate  humor  in  social  interactions  (Bell,  McGhee,  and 
Duffey,  1986).  Thus,  self-monitoring  may  be  an  important  personality  trait  that  con- 
tributes to  the  development  of  the  ability  to  produce  humor.  These  findings  suggest 
that  humor  creativity  should  be  viewed  as  a  type  of  social  skill  (see  also  Dewitte  and 
Verguts,  2001,  for  a  similar  selectionist  account  of  sense  of  humor  development). 

Other  researchers  have  used  similar  humor  creation  tests  to  examine  the  as- 
sociation between  humor  production  ability  and  more  general  forms  of  creativity 
(reviewed  by  O'Quin  and  Derks,  1997).  As  discussed  in  Chapter  4,  a  number  of  the- 
orists have  noted  close  connections  between  humor  and  creativity,  pointing  out  that 
both  involve  divergent  thinking,  incongruity,  surprise,  and  novelty  (Ferris,  1972; 
Murdock  and  Ganim,  1993;  Treadwell,  1970;  Wicker,  1985;  Ziv,  1980).  For  example, 
Arthur  Koestler  (1964)  considered  humor,  scientific  discovery,  and  artistic  creation 
(all  of  which  involve  the  process  of  bisociation)  to  be  forms  of  creativity. 

Researchers  investigating  these  hypotheses  have  assessed  participants'  humor  cre- 
ation abilities  by  rating  the  funniness  of  their  responses  to  a  variety  of  tasks,  includ- 
ing creating  humorous  captions  for  cartoons  (Babad,  1974;  Brodzinsky  and  Rubien, 
1976;  Ziv,  1980)  and  TAT  cards  (Day  and  Langevin,  1969),  generating  witty  word 
associations  (Hauck  and  Thomas,  1972),  and  making  up  funny  presidential  campaign 
slogans  (Clabby,  1980).  In  general,  these  studies  revealed  positive  but  moderate  cor- 
relations between  these  funniness  ratings  and  a  variety  of  measures  of  creativity, 
including  the  Remote  Associates  Test  (in  which  participants  must  identify  a  concept 
that  links  two  seemingly  unrelated  words)  and  tests  in  which  participants  are  asked  to 
come  up  with  unusual  uses  of  a  common  object  such  as  a  brick.  A  meta-analysis  of 
this  research  found  an  average  correlation  of  .34  between  humor  production  ability 
and  creativity  (O'Quin  and  Derks,  1997).  These  authors  concluded  that,  although  cre- 
ativity and  humor  production  do  involve  similar  mental  processes,  they  are  nonethe- 
less distinct.  Whereas  humorous  productions  are  typically  creative,  individuals  can  be 
creative  without  being  funny. 

How  is  humor  production  ability  related  to  other  dimensions  of  sense  of  humor? 
As  noted  earlier,  research  has  generally  indicated  little  or  no  relation  between  mea- 
sures of  humor  production  and  humor  appreciation  (Babad,  1974;  Kohler  and  Ruch, 
1996;  Koppel  and  Sechrest,  1970),  indicating  that,  somewhat  surprisingly,  people  who 
are  able  to  create  humor  successfully  do  not  necessarily  enjoy  or  respond  with  amuse- 
ment to  various  kinds  of  jokes  and  cartoons.  On  the  other  hand,  some  positive  but 
generally  weak  correlations  have  been  found  between  measures  of  humor  production 
ability  and  several  self-report  humor  scales,  including  the  SHRQ,  CHS,  Metames- 
sage  Sensitivity  scale  of  the  SHQ,  and  (low)  Seriousness  scale  of  the  STCI-T  (Kohler 
and  Ruch,  1996;  Lefcourt  and  Martin,  1986;  Ruch,  Kohler,  et  al,  1996). 


The  use  of  ability  measures  of  humor  production  is  an  approach  that  merits 
further  investigation.  In  addition  to  self-monitoring  and  creativity,  this  method  would 
seem  to  be  useful  for  evaluating  other  variables  besides  self-monitoring  and  creativ- 
ity (e.g.,  intelligence,  tolerance  for  ambiguity,  curiosity)  that  contribute  to  humor 


When  we  say  that  someone  has  a  sense  of  humor,  we  are  implying  that  we  have 
frequently  observed  this  person  engaging  in  a  variety  of  humor-related  behaviors  in 
a  range  of  situations.  For  example,  we  may  have  seen  the  person  telling  jokes  or 
humorous  stories,  making  spontaneous  witty  comments,  laughing  at  a  variety  of 
amusing  events,  and  so  on.  Based  on  these  observations,  we  may  also  characterize  the 
person's  overall  humorous  style  in  various  ways,  using  descriptors  such  as  reflective, 
sarcastic,  irreverent,  or  sardonic.  Thus,  the  concept  of  sense  of  humor  may  be  viewed 
as  a  socially  constructed  description  of  a  person's  typical  humor-related  conduct.  In 
other  words,  sense  of  humor  may  be  seen  as  a  set  of  labels  that  we  ascribe  to  people 
based  on  our  observations  during  our  interactions  with  them.  What  are  the  basic 
dimensions  by  which  people  classify  different  styles  of  humor  in  everyday  conduct, 
and  what  are  the  patterns  of  humor-related  behaviors  that  are  associated  with  these 
different  dimensions?  These  questions  have  been  the  focus  of  research  conducted  by 
Kenneth  Craik  and  his  colleagues  at  the  University  of  California  at  Berkeley  (Craik, 
Lampert,  and  Nelson,  1996;  Craik  and  Ware,  1998). 

To  investigate  the  dimensions  of  humor  based  on  observable  behavior,  Craik  and 
his  colleagues  began  by  developing  a  list  of  100  descriptive  statements  that  were 
intended  to  capture  all  the  important  facets  of  the  domain  of  everyday  humorous 
conduct  (described  by  Craik  and  Ware,  1998).  Examples  of  these  descriptions  include: 
"Uses  good-natured  jests  to  put  others  at  ease,"  "Has  difficulty  controlling  the 
urge  to  laugh  in  solemn  situations,"  "Enjoys  witticisms  which  are  intellectually  chal- 
lenging," and  "Spoils  jokes  by  laughing  before  finishing  them."  Each  of  these  state- 
ments was  then  printed  on  a  separate  card  to  form  the  Humorous  Behavior  Q-sort 
Deck  (HBQD).  Subsequent  research  with  this  card  deck  employed  the  standard  q- 
sort  technique,  in  which  observers  are  asked  to  sort  the  cards  into  a  series  of  piles 
indicating  the  degree  to  which  each  description  is  characteristic  of  a  particular  target 

In  one  study  (described  by  Craik  and  Ware,  1998),  participants  were  asked  to  sort 
the  cards  to  describe  a  hypothetical  person  with  a  high  sense  of  humor.  Correlations 
among  the  card  sorts  of  the  participants  revealed  high  agreement  in  the  popular  con- 
ception of  what  it  means  for  someone  to  have  a  sense  of  humor.  Averaging  across  the 
card  sorts  of  all  the  subjects,  the  researchers  were  able  to  identify  the  humor  styles 
that  are  generally  perceived  to  be  positively  and  negatively  associated  with  this 
concept,  as  well  as  those  that  are  seen  as  irrelevant.  Positively  related  to  the  concept 
of  sense  of  humor  were  items  having  to  do  with  good-natured  wittiness,  a  cheerful 


disposition,  and  skillful  humor  ability.  Negatively  associated  items  were  those  involv- 
ing aggressive,  inappropriate,  and  maladroit  attempts  at  humor.  Enjoyment  of  intel- 
lectual wit  and  ethnic  jokes,  along  with  ingratiating  uses  of  humor,  were  deemed  to 
be  irrelevant  to  the  concept.  Thus,  this  method  proved  useful  for  exploring  the  way 
most  people  typically  conceptualize  a  sense  of  humor. 

In  another  study  (also  described  by  Craik  and  Ware,  1998),  participants  were 
asked  to  sort  the  HBQD  cards  to  describe  the  styles  of  humor  of  several  famous  come- 
dians, such  as  David  Letterman,  Woody  Allen,  and  Bill  Cosby.  Again,  good  interrater 
reliabilities  were  found.  Correlations  between  the  mean  card  sorts  for  different  come- 
dians were  then  computed  to  examine  the  degree  to  which  their  humor  styles  were 
perceived  to  be  similar.  For  example,  Arsenio  Hall  and  Whoopi  Goldberg  were  per- 
ceived to  have  fairly  similar  styles,  whereas  Woody  Allen  and  Lucille  Ball  were  less 
similar.  This  ^-sort  method  could  be  a  potentially  useful  technique  for  researchers  to 
use  in  quantifying  the  degree  of  similarity  in  humor  styles  between  pairs  of  individ- 
uals, such  as  married  couples  or  friends.  These  similarity  scores  could  then  be  corre- 
lated with  other  relationship  variables  such  as  marital  satisfaction  or  the  long-term 
stability  of  the  friendships  to  examine  the  degree  to  which  similarity  in  humor  styles 
contributes  to  these  aspects  of  relationships. 

To  identify  the  major  dimensions  underlying  different  perceived  styles  of  humor, 
a  large  number  of  university  students  were  asked  to  describe  their  own  humor  styles 
using  the  HBQD,  and  these  card  sorts  were  then  subjected  to  factor  analysis  (Craik 
et  al.,  1996).  This  analysis  revealed  five  bipolar  factors,  which  were  labeled  as:  (1) 
socially  warm  versus  cold;  (2)  reflective  versus  boorish;  (3)  competent  versus  inept;  (4) 
earthy  versus  repressed;  and  (5)  benign  versus  mean-spirited  humorous  styles.  It  was 
suggested  that  these  five  factors  represent  the  major  implicit  dimensions  by  which 
people  characterize  one  another's  sense  of  humor.  In  future  research  using  this  pro- 
cedure, an  individual's  humorous  style  could  be  described  (either  by  the  individual  or, 
more  preferably,  by  trained  observers)  by  means  of  a  card  sort  with  the  HBQD,  and 
factor  scores  for  each  of  the  five  factors  could  be  computed  for  that  individual.  These 
scores  could  then  be  used  in  investigating  their  correlations  with  other  personality, 
social,  and  affective  variables  that  might  be  of  interest  to  the  researcher. 

As  one  example  of  such  research,  Craik  and  colleagues  (1996)  examined  correla- 
tions between  factor  scores  on  the  (self-administered)  HBQD  and  scores  on  a  measure 
of  extraversion  in  a  sample  of  university  students.  Greater  extraversion  (as  compared 
to  introversion)  was  found  to  be  associated  with  more  socially  warm  and  also  more 
boorish  humor  styles.  The  other  three  humor  style  factors  were  unrelated  to 
extraversion-introversion.  Other  studies  examined  correlations  between  the  HBQD 
factors  and  scores  on  the  subscales  of  the  California  Psychological  Inventory  (Craik 
et  al.,  1996)  and  the  major  personality  dimensions  of  the  FFM  (Craik  and  Ware,  1998). 
The  results  demonstrated  that  each  of  these  general  personality  dimensions  is  char- 
acterized by  a  unique  constellation  of  humorous  styles,  suggesting  that  people  with 
different  personality  traits  have  different  corresponding  styles  of  humor.  For  example, 
individuals  who  are  high  on  the  FFM  dimension  of  agreeableness  tend  to  be  charac- 
terized by  a  socially  warm,  competent,  and  benign  humorous  style.  On  the  other  hand, 


neuroticism  was  associated  with  an  inept  (as  opposed  to  competent)  humor  style. 
Further  research  is  needed  to  replicate  these  findings  and  explore  relationships  with 
other  personality  constructs.  In  addition,  this  methodology  may  be  useful  for  future 
research  investigating  such  questions  as  the  role  of  different  humorous  styles  in  inter- 
personal relationships,  coping  with  stress,  and  mental  health  generally. 

In  summary,  the  HBQD  represents  a  method  for  investigating  sense  of  humor 
that  takes  a  different  perspective  than  the  approaches  using  humor  appreciation,  self- 
report,  and  humor  production  measures.  However,  research  using  this  approach  has 
been  quite  limited  so  far,  and  its  potential  utility  for  exploring  other  facets  of  sense 
of  humor  remains  largely  unexplored.  An  initial  step  that  seems  necessary  for  future 
research  is  to  determine  the  stability  and  replicability  of  the  identified  factors.  In  this 
regard,  a  recent  factor  analytic  study  of  the  items  from  the  HBQD  did  not  replicate 
the  original  factor  structure  (Kirsh  and  Kuiper,  2003),  although  this  may  have  been 
due  to  the  use  of  a  self-rating  format  using  Likert  scales  rather  the  original  q-sort 
method.  Because  it  was  originally  developed  for  use  by  trained  observers,  the  use  of 
the  HBQD  in  a  self-report  format  also  seems  questionable.  Many  of  the  items  appear 
to  be  difficult  to  understand  by  untrained  raters  and  many  refer  to  behaviors  that  are 
not  readily  accessible  to  self-observation  (e.g.,  "Enhances  humorous  impact  with  a 
deft  sense  of  timing;"  "Delights  in  the  implicit  buffoonery  of  the  over-pompous"). 
Nonetheless,  this  approach,  when  used  as  originally  intended,  appears  to  be  a  poten- 
tially interesting  avenue  for  future  investigations. 


As  we  saw  at  the  beginning  of  this  chapter,  most  people  seem  to  think  of  sense 
of  humor  as  a  unitary  construct,  although  its  meaning  in  popular  usage  tends  to  be 
quite  vague  and  ill-defined.  Over  the  years,  personality  researchers  have  attempted  to 
clarify  and  refine  the  meaning  of  this  concept,  defining  and  measuring  it  in  a  number 
of  different  ways.  In  the  current  state  of  the  literature,  with  the  proliferation  of  meas- 
urement instruments  over  recent  years,  sense  of  humor  seems  to  comprise  a  plethora 
of  apparently  distinct  trait  dimensions.  There  are  three  factors  of  humor  appreciation 
measured  with  the  3WD,  numerous  constructs  measured  by  many  different  self- 
report  humor  tests,  five  styles  of  humorous  conduct  assessed  by  the  HBQD,  and  an 
unknown  number  of  components  of  humor  production  ability.  After  starting  out  with 
a  seemingly  simple  idea,  sense  of  humor  turns  out  to  be  exceedingly  complicated! 

Do  we  really  need  this  many  different  trait  concepts,  however,  to  meaningfully 
describe  individual  differences  in  humor?  It  would  seem  to  be  desirable  for  personal- 
ity psychologists  to  identify  the  degree  to  which  all  these  different  traits  are  inter- 
correlated  and  to  determine  whether  individual  differences  in  humor  can  be  captured 
using  a  more  parsimonious  set  of  basic  dimensions.  To  answer  these  questions, 
researchers  should  ideally  administer  all  the  existing  measures  to  large  samples  of  indi- 
viduals representing  a  broad  cross  section  of  the  population  across  different  cultures. 
Factor  analyses  could  then  be  conducted  on  these  data  to  identify  the  underlying 


factor  structure.  This  would  be  similar  to  the  approach  that  was  taken  with  person- 
ality traits  in  the  development  of  the  FFM  (John,  1990).  Additional  research  could 
then  explore  the  relations  between  the  identified  core  humor  factors  and  broader  per- 
sonality dimensions  such  as  the  FFM  to  determine  the  degree  to  which  sense  of  humor 
dimensions  overlap  with  known  personality  factors  or  are  fairly  unique.  Only  a  limited 
amount  of  research  along  these  lines  has  been  conducted  so  far,  focusing  primarily  on 
self-report  measures. 

Using  data  from  a  sample  of  German  adults  from  the  general  population, 
Willibald  Ruch  (1994)  conducted  a  factor  analysis  of  seven  sense  of  humor  scales  from 
four  different  self-report  measures,  including  the  SHRQ,  CHS,  SHQ,  and  Ziv's 
(1981)  measure  of  humor  appreciation  and  creativity.  Also  included  were  the  three 
subscales  of  the  Telic  Dominance  Scale  (TDS)  (Murgatroyd  et  al.,  1978),  which  relate 
to  seriousmindedness,  planfulness,  and  arousal  avoidance  (i.e.,  the  inverse  of  a  habit- 
ually playful,  humorous  frame  of  mind).  This  analysis  yielded  only  two  factors.  All 
the  sense  of  humor  scales  loaded  highly  positively  on  the  first  factor,  which  was  ten- 
tatively labeled  cheerfulness.  This  finding  suggests  that  these  different  self-report  tests, 
although  they  were  designed  to  measure  different  components  or  aspects  of  sense  of 
humor,  actually  all  assess  a  common  underlying  dimension.  The  second  factor,  labeled 
restraint  versus  expressiveness,  was  found  to  be  related  only  to  the  SHRQ,  the  Emo- 
tional Expressiveness  scale  of  Svebak's  SHQ,  and  (in  the  opposite  direction)  the 
subscales  of  the  TDS. 

To  explore  these  dimensions  further,  Ruch  examined  the  relations  of  these  two 
humor  factors,  as  well  as  each  of  the  individual  humor  scales,  with  the  three  super- 
factors  of  extraversion,  neuroticism,  and  psychoticism,  which  were  viewed  by  Eysenck 
(1990)  as  being  the  most  basic,  biologically  based  temperament  dimensions  of  per- 
sonality. All  of  the  sense  of  humor  scales  loaded  positively  on  extraversion,  as  did  the 
first  (cheerfulness)  factor  found  in  the  factor  analysis.  Thus,  these  self-report  humor 
scales  all  appear  to  relate  primarily  to  the  general  personality  dimension  of  extraver- 
sion, which  comprises  traits  such  as  sociable,  lively,  active,  assertive,  sensation-seeking, 
carefree,  dominant,  and  the  tendency  to  experience  positive  moods.  Overall,  a  sense 
of  humor  seems  to  be  a  characteristic  of  extraverts  rather  than  introverts.  In  addition, 
the  SHRQ  and  Emotional  Expressiveness  scale  of  the  SHQ  (along  with  the  second 
overall  humor  factor)  loaded  positively  on  the  psychoticism  dimension,  which,  among 
other  traits,  relates  to  low  impulse  control.  This  relationship  is  likely  due  to  items  on 
the  SHRQ  and  SHQ-E  scales  that  describe  laughing  in  situations  in  which  laughter 
is  not  typically  seen  to  be  appropriate. 

Somewhat  surprisingly,  none  of  the  humor  scales  were  strongly  loaded  on  the 
neuroticism  dimension,  with  only  a  weak  negative  loading  for  the  SHQ-M  scale. 
Thus,  individuals  with  high  scores  on  these  humor  scales  do  not  necessarily  experi- 
ence less  negative  emotions  than  do  those  with  low  humor  scores.  Contrary  to  popular 
opinion,  people  with  a  strong  sense  of  humor,  as  measured  by  these  self-report  scales, 
are  not  necessarily  very  emotionally  stable  and  well-adjusted.  Overall,  this  study  indi- 
cated that  the  various  self-report  humor  scales  do  not  assess  substantially  different 
humor  dimensions,  but  instead  form  one  main  factor  that  is  quite  strongly  related  to 


extraversion.  Ruch  suggested  that  measures  of  humor  appreciation  and  the  ability  to 
produce  humor  are  likely  not  related  to  these  temperament  dimensions,  although  he 
did  not  test  this  assumption  in  this  study. 

In  a  later  study,  Gabriele  Kohler  and  Willibald  Ruch  (1996)  conducted  a  similar 
factor  analysis  of  23  humor-related  self-report  scales  using  another  sample  of  German 
adults.  In  addition  to  the  scales  used  in  the  previous  study,  this  analysis  also  included 
the  cheerfulness  and  seriousness  facet  subscales  of  the  STCI-T,  the  Multidimensional 
Sense  of  Humor  Scale  (MSHS;  Thorson  and  Powell,  1993a),  and  the  Humor  Initia- 
tion Scale  (HIS;  Bell  et  al.,  1986).  Once  again,  only  two  factors  were  found.  The  first 
factor,  again  labeled  cheerfulness,  had  strong  loadings  for  all  the  scales  except  for  the 
seriousness  facet  subscales  of  the  STCI-T.  The  second  factor,  labeled  seriousness,  had 
strong  positive  loadings  for  the  STCI-T  seriousness  scales,  and  generally  weak  neg- 
ative loadings  for  most  of  the  remaining  humor  scales. 

The  authors  concluded  that  these  results  provided  support  for  Ruch's  model  of 
the  temperament  basis  of  sense  of  humor  (discussed  earlier).  Most  self-report  humor 
tests  appear  to  relate  strongly  to  trait  cheerfulness,  and  they  also  tend  to  capture  a 
low  seriousness  or  playfulness  component  to  varying  degrees.  Once  again,  the  first 
factor  was  found  to  be  strongly  related  to  extraversion,  and  in  this  study  it  was  also 
somewhat  negatively  related  to  neuroticism.  In  addition,  the  second  factor  was  again 
related  to  psychoticism,  with  greater  psychoticism  being  associated  with  lower  seri- 
ousness, or  greater  playfulness.  Thus,  most  of  the  variance  in  self-report  humor  scales 
seems  to  be  captured  by  the  Eysenckian  temperament  dimensions  of  extraversion  and 
psychoticism  and,  less  so,  by  (low)  neuroticism. 

This  study  also  included  measures  of  humor  appreciation  (the  3  WD)  and  a  test 
of  humor  production  ability  (a  cartoon  captioning  task),  although  unfortunately  these 
were  not  included  in  the  factor  analysis.  Correlational  analyses  revealed  that,  as  in 
previous  research,  humor  appreciation  and  humor  production  measures  were  unre- 
lated to  each  other.  In  addition,  self-report  measures  purporting  to  assess  humor 
appreciation  were  only  weakly  correlated  with  the  3WD  appreciation  scores,  while 
self-report  scales  designed  to  assess  humor  production  were  generally  unrelated  to  the 
rated  funniness  of  participants'  cartoon  humor  productions  (with  the  exception  of  the 
SHQ-M  scale).  Overall,  these  findings  suggest  that  three  distinct  humor  constructs 
are  assessed  by  measures  of  (1)  humor  appreciation  (the  3WD),  (2)  humor  produc- 
tion, and  (3)  self-report  scales,  with  the  latter  measures  reflecting  the  two  broad 
dimensions  of  cheerfulness  and,  to  varying  degrees,  (low)  seriousness.  Further 
research  is  needed  to  replicate  these  findings  with  other  populations  and  to  include 
newer  humor  measures,  such  as  the  HSQ  and  the  HBQD. 


Do  professional  comedians  have  particular  personality  traits  that  differ  from  those 
of  other  people?  One  commonly  held  belief  is  that  comedians  tend  to  be  depressive 
individuals  who  hide  their  dysphoria  behind  a  mask  of  superficial  hilarity.  An  old  story 


tells  of  a  man  going  to  a  doctor  to  complain  of  feelings  of  depression  and  despon- 
dency. The  doctor  encourages  him  to  attend  a  performance  of  a  famous  comedian 
who  is  extremely  funny  and  will  be  sure  to  lift  his  spirits.  The  patient  replies  that  he 
is  that  comedian. 

Two  studies  have  investigated  the  personality  traits  of  professional  comedians. 
Taking  a  psychoanalytic  approach,  Samuel  Janus  (1975,  1978)  studied  the  intelligence, 
educational  level,  family  background,  and  personality  structure  of  55  male  and  14 
female  comedians,  all  of  whom  were  said  to  be  famous  and  successful.  Data  were  col- 
lected using  clinical  interviews,  early  memories,  dreams,  handwriting  analyses,  pro- 
jective  tests,  and  the  Wechsler  Adult  Intelligence  Scale  (WAIS).  Based  on  his 
interpretations  of  these  data,  Janus  concluded  that  comedians  tended  to  be  superior 
in  intelligence,  angry,  suspicious,  and  depressed.  In  addition,  their  early  lives  were 
characterized  by  suffering,  isolation,  and  feelings  of  deprivation,  and  they  used  humor 
as  a  defense  against  anxiety,  converting  their  feelings  of  suppressed  rage  from  physi- 
cal to  verbal  aggression. 

Many  of  the  comedians  were  also  described  as  shy,  sensitive,  and  empathic  indi- 
viduals whose  comedic  success  was  due  in  part  to  an  ability  to  accurately  perceive  the 
fears  and  needs  of  their  audiences.  Overall,  these  findings  appear  to  provide  support 
for  the  popular  view  of  professional  comedians  as  generally  unhappy  people.  However, 
the  validity  of  the  results  is  questionable,  due  to  the  use  of  some  dubious  assessment 
methods  and  the  lack  of  a  control  group,  making  it  difficult  to  know  whether  these 
characteristics  are  unique  to  comedians  or  may  be  shared,  for  example,  by  noncomic 

Seymour  Fisher  and  Rhoda  Fisher  (1981)  conducted  a  more  well-controlled  study 
of  the  personality  characteristics  and  childhood  memories  of  43  professional  comedi- 
ans and  circus  clowns  (whom  they  designated  collectively  as  "comics").  To  control  for 
possible  non-comedy-related  variables  involved  in  being  a  public  performer,  these 
researchers  included  an  age-matched  comparison  sample  of  professional  actors.  They 
administered  a  semistructured  interview,  the  Rorschach  inkblot  test,  the  TAT,  and 
several  standardized  personality  questionnaires  to  all  participants. 

The  two  groups  did  not  differ  on  measures  of  depression  or  overall  psychologi- 
cal health,  casting  doubt  on  the  view  that  comedians  are  more  psychologically  dis- 
turbed than  other  people.  However,  a  number  of  interesting  statistically  significant 
differences  did  emerge  between  the  two  groups.  Compared  to  the  actors,  the  comics' 
responses  revealed  a  significantly  greater  preoccupation  with  themes  of  good  and  evil, 
unworthiness,  self-deprecation,  duty  and  responsibility,  concealment,  and  smallness. 
In  addition,  the  comics,  as  compared  to  the  actors,  described  their  fathers  in  more 
positive  terms  and  their  mothers  in  a  more  negative  manner.  These  findings  suggested 
that  their  comic  tendencies  may  have  originated  in  early  family  dynamics. 

Most  of  these  professional  comics  indicated  that  they  had  developed  their 
comedic  abilities  early  in  childhood,  and  many  had  been  "class  clowns"  in  school.  In 
order  to  investigate  further  the  possible  childhood  dynamics  involved  in  becoming  a 
comic,  Fisher  and  Fisher  conducted  another  study  in  which  they  used  self-report  ques- 
tionnaires to  compare  the  personality  characteristics  and  attitudes  of  the  parents  of  a 


group  of  children  identified  as  class  clowns  with  the  parents  of  children  who  did  not 
show  these  comic  characteristics.  Compared  to  the  mothers  of  noncomic  children, 
personality  testing  revealed  that  the  mothers  of  the  comic  children  were  significantly 
less  kind,  less  sympathetic,  less  close  and  intimately  involved  with  their  children,  and 
more  selfish  and  controlling,  and  that  they  wanted  their  children  to  take  responsibil- 
ity and  grow  up  more  quickly.  For  their  part,  the  fathers  of  the  comic  children  were 
more  passive  than  those  of  the  noncomic  children. 

On  the  basis  of  the  combined  findings  from  these  two  studies,  Fisher  and  Fisher 
theorized  that  professional  comics  develop  their  humor  skills  in  childhood  as  a  means 
of  entertaining  others,  gaining  approval,  and  asserting  their  goodness,  in  the  context 
of  a  relatively  uncongenial  family  environment  characterized  by  limited  maternal 
affection  and  warmth,  a  need  to  take  on  adult  responsibilities  at  an  early  age,  and  a 
sense  that  things  often  are  not  what  they  appear  to  be  on  the  surface.  Moreover,  as 
children  they  tend  to  take  on  a  parentified  healing  role,  learning  to  provide  psycho- 
logical support  and  reassurance  to  their  parents  by  means  of  a  humorous  persona.  By 
making  their  parents  laugh  at  their  funny  antics,  they  are  able  to  gain  the  attention 
and  approval  of  otherwise  unaffectionate  and  rejecting  parents.  Thus,  humor  in  these 
individuals  seems  to  be  a  means  of  coping  with  feelings  of  anxiety  and  anger  associ- 
ated with  a  generally  harsh  and  uncongenial  family  environment. 

Overall,  then,  although  this  research  does  not  support  the  popular  view  that  pro- 
fessional comedians  are  depressed  or  otherwise  psychologically  disturbed,  it  does 
suggest  that  humor  in  these  individuals  serves  as  a  defense  or  coping  mechanism  for 
dealing  with  adversity  in  early  life.  The  well-honed  comedic  skills  required  for  a  suc- 
cessful career  as  a  comic  may  well  be  developed  as  a  means  of  compensating  for  earlier 
psychological  losses  and  difficulties.  As  we  will  see  in  Chapter  8,  similar  mechanisms 
may  be  involved  in  the  development  of  a  comic  sense  of  humor  in  at  least  some  ordi- 
nary individuals  who  do  not  become  professional  comedians. 


A  sense  of  humor  is  seen  by  most  people  as  an  important  personality  character- 
istic. It  is  one  of  the  main  dimensions  by  which  people  tend  to  characterize  others, 
and  is  viewed  as  a  very  desirable  trait  in  potential  friends  and  romantic  partners 
(Sprecher  and  Regan,  2002).  But  what  exactly  is  sense  of  humor?  As  we  have  seen, 
this  concept  has  taken  on  many  positive  connotations  over  the  years,  while  becoming 
increasingly  vague  and  ill-defined.  The  research  reviewed  in  this  chapter  suggests  that 
sense  of  humor  is  not  a  unitary  construct.  Instead,  it  can  be  conceptualized  and  mea- 
sured in  a  number  of  different  ways,  each  focusing  on  different  aspects  of  humor.  Fur- 
thermore, these  different  ways  of  defining  it  are  not  necessarily  highly  correlated  with 
one  another,  and  they  relate  in  quite  different  ways  to  other  personality  traits. 

Research  with  a  variety  of  different  sense  of  humor  measures  is  beginning  to 
clarify  the  nature  and  correlates  of  these  humor-related  traits,  showing  how  they 
interact  with  other  dimensions  of  personality  and  behavior.  With  regard  to  the  humor 


appreciation  approach,  Ruch's  work  with  the  3WD  has  contributed  a  great  deal  to 
our  understanding  of  individual  differences  in  the  enjoyment  of  humor  in  the  form 
of  jokes  and  cartoons.  Interestingly,  this  research  demonstrates  that  individual  differ- 
ences in  humor  appreciation  have  more  to  do  with  structural  aspects  than  with  the 
content  or  topic  of  the  jokes,  contrary  to  the  assumptions  of  many  past  researchers. 
These  investigations  have  also  uncovered  some  very  interesting  correlations  between 
these  structural  humor  appreciation  dimensions  and  a  variety  of  more  general  per- 
sonality traits,  showing  that  the  types  of  humor  that  individuals  enjoy  reflect  their 
levels  of  conservative  versus  liberal  social  attitudes,  sensation  seeking,  toughminded- 
ness,  and  so  on. 

Other  researchers  have  taken  an  ability  approach  to  sense  of  humor,  denning  it 
in  terms  of  the  ability  to  produce  humor  and  amuse  others.  People  who  do  well  on 
these  types  of  tests  presumably  excel  in  the  cognitive  abilities  needed  to  generate  the 
sorts  of  nonserious  incongruities  that  are  the  hallmark  of  humor.  Research  using  this 
approach  indicates  that  individuals  who  are  more  aware  of  and  responsive  to  the  reac- 
tions of  others  to  their  own  behavior  (i.e.,  those  who  are  high  in  self-monitoring),  as 
well  as  those  who  are  generally  more  creative  and  capable  of  divergent  thinking, 
tend  to  be  better  at  producing  humor  and  making  others  laugh.  Thus,  an  aptitude 
for  humor  production  may  be  viewed  as  a  type  of  social  skill  as  well  as  a  creative 

The  many  different  self-report  measures  that  have  been  created  in  recent  years 
were  designed  to  assess  different  components  or  aspects  of  sense  of  humor.  A  con- 
siderable amount  of  evidence  for  reliability  and  validity  has  been  found  for  several  of 
these  measures.  However,  factor  analytic  research  suggests  that  most  of  these  self- 
report  scales  load  on  only  one  or  two  major  factors.  The  strongest  factor  has  to  do 
with  a  cheerful  temperament  and  an  extraverted,  sociable  disposition,  while  the  other 
involves  a  playful,  nonserious  attitude.  These  dimensions  provide  support  for  Ruch's 
temperament  model  of  sense  of  humor,  and  also  reflect  the  social,  emotional,  and  cog- 
nitive components  of  humor  that  I  have  discussed  at  earlier  points  in  this  book. 

Until  recently,  a  limitation  of  self-report  humor  measures  has  been  their  unique 
focus  on  positive,  desirable  aspects  of  humor.  The  HSQ  represents  a  more  recent  ten- 
dency among  researchers  to  consider  also  more  negative  and  socially  undesirable  func- 
tions of  humor  in  social  interaction.  As  we  will  see  in  Chapter  9,  researchers  have 
recently  begun  to  explore  the  implications  of  these  and  other  negative  humor  styles 
for  interpersonal  relationships  and  psychological  well-being.  The  HBQD  represents 
another  potentially  interesting  method  of  investigating  individual  differences  in 
humor  styles  using  q-sort  ratings  by  observers.  This  method  appears  to  be  particu- 
larly useful  for  examining  popular  conceptions  of  what  a  sense  of  humor  is,  as  well  as 
providing  a  method  for  quantifying  similarities  and  differences  in  humor  styles 
between  individuals  and  examining  relationships  between  various  humor  styles  and 
other  personality  traits  and  behaviors. 

One  view  that  seems  to  be  emerging  in  the  research  is  that  different  personality 
traits  are  reflected  in  different  humor  dimensions.  In  other  words,  people  express  their 
particular  personality  traits  through  their  humor.  Thus,  it  may  be  that  extraverts 


express  humor  in  different  ways  and  enjoy  different  types  of  humor  than  do  intro- 
verts. Similarly,  more  agreeable  people  tend  to  have  a  friendly  style  of  humor,  while 
hostile  individuals  tend  to  use  humor  in  more  aggressive  ways.  Other  styles  of  humor 
may  be  differentially  associated  with  neuroticism  versus  emotional  stability,  as  well  as 
openness  and  conscientiousness. 

In  summary,  a  considerable  amount  of  research  has  been  conducted  on  various 
dimensions  of  sense  of  humor  as  a  personality  trait,  providing  a  growing  scientific 
understanding  of  this  ubiquitous  tendency  of  humans  to  play  with  language  and  ideas. 
In  the  following  chapters,  I  will  discuss  research  investigating  how  these  various  com- 
ponents of  sense  of  humor  develop  during  childhood,  and  how  they  relate  to  aspects 
of  psychological  and  physical  health. 

CHAPTER       8 


'e  have  seen  in  previous  chapters  that 
humor  is  a  complex  phenomenon  involving  a  range  of  psychological  functions.  These 
include  cognitive  processes  relating  to  perception,  language,  concept  formation, 
memory,  problem  solving,  and  creativity;  play  and  emotion;  social  relationships  and 
communication;  and  biological  processes  taking  place  in  the  brain  and  extending  into 
other  parts  of  the  body.  Although  nearly  everyone  engages  in  humor  to  some  degree, 
individuals  differ  from  one  another  in  their  humor  comprehension  and  production, 
the  types  of  humor  that  they  enjoy,  and  the  way  they  use  and  express  humor  in  their 
daily  lives.  In  this  chapter,  we  will  see  that  all  these  psychological  aspects  of  humor 
begin  to  emerge  soon  after  birth  and  continue  to  develop  over  the  course  of  child- 
hood and  into  adulthood. 

What  are  the  typical  patterns  of  humor  development  in  children?  How  do  chil- 
dren's developing  cognitive,  social,  and  emotional  capacities  interact  with  their  ability 
to  understand,  enjoy,  and  produce  humor?  What  are  the  contributions  of  genetic  and 
social  environmental  factors  to  the  development  of  individual  differences  in  children's 
sense  of  humor,  and  how  does  a  sense  of  humor  influence  the  child's  cognitive,  social, 
and  emotional  functioning?  How  does  humor  change  over  the  course  of  adulthood, 
and  what  are  the  changing  social  and  emotional  functions  of  humor  in  later  life? 
These  and  other  related  questions  have  been  the  focus  of  a  considerable  body  of 
research  that  has  accumulated  over  the  past  40  years  on  the  developmental 
psychology  of  humor. 



Developmental  psychologists  make  use  of  empirical  research  methods  to  study 
psychological  development  over  the  life  span.  Employing  a  variety  of  research 
methods,  including  observational  studies,  experiments,  surveys,  and  case  studies,  and 
using  retrospective,  cross-sectional,  and  longitudinal  designs,  they  seek  to  understand 
the  processes  of  change  in  cognition,  language,  emotion,  social  functioning,  and  so 
forth.  Developmental  psychologists  take  a  multifaceted  perspective,  recognizing  that 
psychological  development  involves  a  complex  interplay  of  genetics,  biology,  parental 
and  family  influences,  and  other  social  environment  factors.  All  these  aspects  of  psy- 
chological development  in  general  apply  as  well  to  the  development  of  humor.  In  this 
chapter,  I  will  discuss  theories  and  research  findings  on  the  developmental  psychol- 
ogy of  humor,  examining  the  development  of  smiling  and  laughter  in  infancy  and  early 
childhood,  the  origins  of  humor  in  children's  play,  the  relation  between  humor  and 
cognitive  development,  humor  as  emotional  coping  in  childhood  and  adolescence, 
social  aspects  of  humor  development,  individual  differences  in  humor,  and  humor  in 
later  adulthood  and  old  age. 


Infants  typically  begin  to  smile  during  their  first  month,  initially  in  response  to 
tactile  stimulation  (e.g.,  tickling,  rubbing  the  skin)  accompanied  by  the  sound  of  a 
caregiver's  voice,  and  a  month  or  so  later  in  response  to  visual  stimuli  such  as  moving 
objects  and  lights.  In  the  following  months,  babies  begin  to  smile  when  they  recog- 
nize objects  such  as  the  general  configuration  of  a  face  and,  eventually,  the  faces  of 
specific  individuals  such  as  their  parents  or  siblings,  indicating  that  they  have  devel- 
oped a  cognitive  schema,  or  mental  representation,  of  that  object.  Smiling  appears  to 
be  most  likely  to  occur  when  an  optimal  amount  of  effort  (not  too  little  or  too  much) 
is  required  for  recognition  (McGhee,  1979). 

Laughter  first  appears  in  the  context  of  infant-caregiver  interaction  sometime 
between  10  and  20  weeks  of  age,  and  it  quickly  becomes  a  frequent  part  of  the  inter- 
actions between  infants  and  their  caregivers.  Researchers  have  observed  that  young 
infants  typically  produce  one  to  four  laughs  in  a  ten-minute  face-to-face  play  session 
with  their  mother  (Fogel  et  al.,  1997).  In  an  early  study  at  the  University  of  Min- 
nesota, Alan  Sroufe  and  Jane  Wunsch  (1972)  investigated  the  stimuli  that  trigger 
laughter  during  the  first  year  of  life  by  having  mothers  engage  in  a  variety  of  behav- 
iors with  their  infants,  such  as  making  lip-popping  sounds,  tickling,  displaying  unusual 
facial  expressions,  and  playing  peek-a-boo  games.  They  found  that  laughter  occurs 
with  increasing  frequency  and  in  response  to  a  greater  variety  of  maternal  behaviors 
over  the  course  of  the  year.  The  types  of  stimuli  producing  laughter  also  change  over 
the  year.  Tactile  and  auditory  stimuli  that  produce  relatively  high  rates  of  laughter  at 
7  or  8  months  (e.g.,  kissing  on  the  bare  stomach  or  making  the  sound  of  a  horse)  are 
less  likely  to  do  so  by  12  months.  In  turn,  visual  and  social  actions  (e.g.,  walking  with 
an  exaggerated  waddle,  or  the  "I'm  going  to  get  you"  game)  are  more  likely  to  induce 
laughter  at  12  months  than  at  8  months.  The  authors  noted  that  the  stimuli  that 


become  most  effective  in  inducing  laughter  with  increasing  age  are  those  that  seem 
to  make  the  greatest  cognitive  demands  on  the  infant. 

Overall,  the  actions  that  trigger  laughter  seem  to  be  ones  that  are  unexpected  or 
incongruous  with  regard  to  the  child's  developing  cognitive  schemas.  When  the 
mother  walks  like  a  penguin,  sucks  on  a  baby  bottle,  or  dangles  a  piece  of  cloth  from 
her  mouth,  these  actions  deviate  from  the  familiar  behavior  that  the  infant  has  come 
to  expect.  Based  on  these  observations,  Sroufe  and  Wunsch  proposed  an  incongruity- 
based  cognitive-arousal  theory  of  laughter  in  infants.  They  suggested  that  laughter 
occurs  in  response  to  an  unexpected  or  incongruous  event,  which  is  appropriate  to 
the  infant's  cognitive  level  but  does  not  mesh  with  his  or  her  developing  schemas. 
Such  incongruous  events  initially  attract  the  attention  of  the  child,  inducing  efforts 
at  information  processing,  and  producing  accompanying  physiological  arousal.  If  the 
infant's  interpretation  of  the  event  is  negative  due  to  feelings  of  insecurity  or  percep- 
tions of  threat,  he  or  she  will  cry  and  engage  in  avoidance  behaviors;  however,  if  the 
interpretation  is  positive,  due  to  perceptions  of  a  safe  and  playful  environment,  he  or 
she  will  smile  or  laugh  and  engage  in  approach  behaviors. 

The  authors  noted  that  their  data  provided  little  support  for  the  ambivalence  view 
of  laughter  that  has  been  proposed  by  some  theorists,  according  to  which  laughter  is 
associated  with  a  concurrent  mixture  of  both  positive  and  negative  emotions.  Instead, 
they  observed  that,  although  an  infant  might  first  respond  to  an  incongruous  stimu- 
lus with  some  apprehension  and  hesitation,  once  laughter  begins  the  affective  tone 
seems  to  be  purely  positive  and  is  accompanied  only  by  approach  behaviors  rather 
than  vacillation.  Thus,  laughter  in  infants  appears  to  occur  in  response  to  the  per- 
ception of  an  incongruous  object  or  event  in  a  safe,  playful,  and  nonthreatening  social 
context.  As  noted  in  Chapter  4,  contemporary  theories  suggest  that  the  perception  of 
nonserious  incongruity  is  also  the  basis  of  humor  in  adults. 

Some  later  experiments  used  the  "peek-a-boo"  game  to  investigate  various  factors 
that  influence  the  amount  of  smiling  and  laughter  exhibited  by  infants  in  response  to 
incongruous  events.  In  this  game,  a  familiar  person  hides  his  or  her  face  for  a  few 
seconds  and  then  suddenly  reappears  in  front  of  the  infant,  saying  "peek-a-boo!"  while 
smiling  and  making  eye  contact  with  the  infant.  Infants  between  6  and  12  months  fre- 
quently smile  and  laugh  upon  seeing  the  person  reappear.  The  disappearance  and 
reappearance  of  a  familiar  face  in  a  playful  context  seems  to  be  particularly  enjoyable 
to  infants  when  they  are  in  the  process  of  mastering  "object  permanence,"  the  recog- 
nition that  objects  continue  to  exist  even  when  they  are  not  visible  to  the  child  (Shultz, 

One  study  (MacDonald  and  Silverman,  1978)  showed  that  one-year-old  children 
are  more  likely  to  smile  and  laugh  in  response  to  this  game  when  it  is  carried  out  by 
their  mother  as  compared  to  a  stranger  (indicating  the  importance  of  familiarity  and 
perceptions  of  security)  and  when  the  mother  rapidly  approaches  them  during  the 
game  rather  than  moving  away  from  them  (indicating  the  importance  of  increasing 

Gerrod  Parrott  and  Henry  Gleitman  (1989),  at  Georgetown  University,  investi- 
gated the  role  of  expectations  in  six-  to  eight-month-old  infants'  enjoyment  by 


inserting  occasional  "trick  trials"  in  a  series  of  standard  peek-a-boo  trials.  In  these 
trick  trials,  one  person  would  hide  and  a  different  person  would  reappear  in  his  or 
her  place,  or  else  the  same  person  would  reappear  but  in  a  different  location  than  in 
the  standard  trials.  The  results  showed  that  the  infants  smiled  and  laughed  much  less 
frequently  in  response  to  the  trick  trials  than  the  standard  trials,  whereas  the  trick 
trials  produced  more  eyebrow-raising,  indicating  surprise  or  puzzlement  instead  of 

These  findings  suggest  that  infants  at  this  age  have  well-formed  expectations 
about  the  identity  and  location  of  the  returning  person,  and  that  conformity  to  these 
expectations  contributes  to  their  enjoyment  of  the  game,  whereas  large  deviations 
from  expectations  induce  puzzlement  rather  than  enjoyment.  The  authors  suggested 
that  when  deviations  from  expectations  are  too  great,  the  infant  is  unable  to  "resolve" 
the  incongruity  by  assimilating  it  into  an  overarching  schema,  thereby  making  sense 
of  it  in  some  way.  Thus  infants,  like  older  children  and  adults,  are  not  always  amused 
by  just  any  sort  of  incongruity  or  deviation  from  their  expectations,  but  prefer  devi- 
ations that  can  be  reinterpreted  in  a  way  that  makes  sense.  In  addition  to  these  cog- 
nitive aspects,  the  trick  trials,  being  so  deviant  from  the  infants'  experience,  might 
have  induced  a  serious,  nonplayful  reaction  of  puzzlement  in  the  infants,  interfering 
with  the  playful  state  of  mind  that  is  required  for  humor. 

The  importance  of  social  factors  in  laughter  was  demonstrated  by  a  study  that 
found  that  infants  never  smiled  or  laughed  in  response  to  an  impersonal  analogue  of 
the  peek-a-boo  game  in  which  a  toy,  instead  of  a  person,  was  made  to  disappear  and 
suddenly  reappear,  whereas  they  frequently  smiled  and  laughed  in  response  to  a  person 
playing  the  game  (Shultz,  1976).  Thus,  laughter  right  from  its  inception  tends  to  be 
a  form  of  social  communication.  Infant  laughter  typically  occurs  during  interactions 
with  parents  and  other  caregivers,  who  in  turn  tend  to  laugh  in  response  to  the 

More  recent  research  by  Evangeline  Nwokah  and  her  colleagues  at  Purdue  Uni- 
versity have  investigated  in  greater  detail  the  social  nature  of  laughter  as  a  means  of 
communicating  emotional  information  between  infants  and  caregivers  (Fogel  et  al., 
1997;  Nwokah  and  Fogel,  1993;  Nwokah  et  al.,  1999;  Nwokah  et  al.,  1994).  For 
example,  Nwokah  and  colleagues  (1994)  conducted  a  longitudinal  study  in  which  they 
observed  the  laughter  of  mothers  and  their  infants  during  free  play  sessions  over  the 
first  two  years  of  the  infants'  lives,  to  examine  the  timing  and  temporal  sequence  of 
laughter  in  interpersonal  interaction.  They  found  that  infant  laughter  increased  in 
frequency  over  the  first  year  and  remained  fairly  stable  during  the  second  year  (aver- 
aging about  .3  laughs  per  minute  by  age  two),  whereas  the  rate  of  laughter  in  the 
mothers  remained  quite  stable  over  the  two  years  (at  about  .55  laughs  per  minute). 
By  the  second  year,  the  rate  and  duration  of  laughter  was  significantly  correlated 
between  mothers  and  infants,  meaning  that  the  more  a  particular  mother  laughed,  the 
more  her  infant  laughed.  Thus,  laughter  appears  to  be  modeled  by  the  mother  during 
the  first  year  and  stabilizes  in  the  infant  by  the  second  year. 

By  the  time  the  infant  is  one  year  of  age,  both  mother  and  infant  can  anticipate 
that  by  altering  their  tone  of  voice,  facial  expressions,  and  actions,  they  can  induce 


laughter  in  each  other.  For  example,  by  engaging  in  incongruous  behaviors  such  as 
putting  a  toy  on  her  head,  the  mother  can  encourage  laughter  in  the  infant,  although 
the  likelihood  of  laughter  also  depends  on  such  factors  as  the  timing,  element  of  sur- 
prise, emotional  state  of  both  the  mother  and  infant,  and  attention  of  the  infant  (Fogel 
et  al.,  1997).  Thus,  laughter  is  clearly  a  social  process,  serving  an  emotional  commu- 
nication function. 

As  children  progress  into  the  preschool  or  nursery  school  years,  their  laughter 
occurs  increasingly  in  the  context  of  playful  interactions  with  other  children  in  addi- 
tion to  caregivers.  Charlene  Bainum  and  her  colleagues  at  the  University  of  Tennessee 
observed  groups  of  three-,  four-,  and  five-year-old  children  in  a  nursery  school  to 
investigate  laughing  and  smiling  during  structured  and  unstructured  play  (Bainum, 
Lounsbury,  and  Pollio,  1984).  No  differences  were  found  between  girls  and  boys  in 
the  overall  frequency  of  smiling  and  laughter  across  the  three  age  groups.  The  social 
nature  of  smiling  and  laughter  was  again  clearly  demonstrated  by  the  fact  that  95 
percent  of  these  behaviors  occurred  when  children  were  interacting  with  others,  and 
only  5  percent  occurred  when  alone.  Laughter  increased  in  frequency  from  age  three 
to  five,  whereas  smiling  decreased  over  this  age  span.  By  the  age  of  five,  children 
laughed  an  average  of  7.7  times  per  hour  during  play.  Smiling  and  laughter  in  three- 
year-olds  occurred  more  often  in  response  to  amusing  nonverbal  actions  (e.g.,  funny 
faces  or  body  movements),  whereas  in  five-year-olds  they  appeared  more  frequently 
in  response  to  amusing  verbal  behaviors  (e.g.,  funny  comments,  stories,  songs,  or 
unusual  word  usage). 

In  all  three  age  groups,  laughter  occurred  most  frequently  in  response  to  inten- 
tional humor  rather  than  events  that  were  unintentionally  funny.  Interestingly,  chil- 
dren were  somewhat  more  likely  to  laugh  at  the  funny  things  they  themselves  said  or 
did,  rather  than  the  behavior  of  others,  indicating  that  laughter  was  often  used  as  a 
signal  to  indicate  that  particular  behaviors  were  meant  to  be  fanny.  Although  the 
majority  of  laughter  occurred  in  response  to  socially  positive  or  at  least  neutral  humor- 
ous behavior,  there  was  an  increase  from  ages  three  to  five  in  the  proportion  of  laugh- 
ter occurring  in  response  to  socially  negative  behaviors  such  as  teasing,  shoving,  or 

Compared  to  laughter,  smiling  occurred  in  response  to  a  wider  variety  of  events, 
especially  incidental  (not  intentionally  funny)  events,  although  it  also  occurred  along 
with  laughter  in  the  context  of  intentional  silliness/clowning  events.  Thus,  although 
some  instances  of  smiling  may  be  viewed  as  a  diminished  form  of  laughter,  indicat- 
ing a  lower  level  of  amusement,  smiling  also  serves  a  broader  range  of  social  func- 
tions than  does  laughter. 

What  are  the  acoustic  characteristics  of  young  children's  laughter?  Nwokah  and 
her  colleagues  (1993)  conducted  acoustical  analyses  of  50  samples  of  laughter  emitted 
by  three-year-old  children  while  interacting  with  their  mothers.  They  identified  four 
distinct  types  of  laughter  in  these  children:  (1)  comment  laughs,  comprising  a  single 
laughter  syllable  or  note  with  a  fundamental  frequency  (pitch)  close  to  that  of  normal 
speech,  and  lasting  about  200  milliseconds;  (2)  chuckle  laughs,  consisting  of  either  one 
note  with  two  peaks  or  two  notes,  with  a  somewhat  higher  pitch  and  a  total  duration 


of  about  500  milliseconds;  (3)  rhythmical  laughter,  comprising  three  or  more  notes  with 
a  similar  fundamental  frequency  as  the  chuckle  and  more  complex  harmonic  struc- 
ture, lasting  1  to  1.5  sec;  and  (4)  squeal  laughter,  involving  a  single  note  of  about  500 
milliseconds  duration  with  a  very  high-pitched  fundamental  frequency. 

The  duration  of  individual  notes  or  syllables  within  all  the  different  kinds  of 
laughs  (with  the  exception  of  squeal  laughter)  was  very  similar  to  that  found  in  adult 
laughter  (approximately  200  to  220  milliseconds).  Some  minor  differences  in  acoustic 
structure  were  observed  between  children's  and  adults'  laughter,  largely  due  to  chil- 
dren having  less  control  over  the  vocal  apparatus.  The  authors  concluded  that  differ- 
ent kinds  of  laughs  are  used  to  communicate  different  degrees  of  emotional  intensity 
as  well  as  qualitatively  different  emotional  experiences.  For  example,  chuckle  laugh- 
ter often  occurs  in  response  to  an  accomplishment  on  the  part  of  the  child,  whereas 
rhythmical  laughter  tends  to  occur  in  a  wide  variety  of  high-arousal  social  contexts, 
often  where  both  partners  are  laughing. 


As  we  have  seen  in  earlier  chapters  of  this  book,  humor  is  closely  related  to  play. 
Research  on  laughter  in  chimpanzees  and  other  animals,  discussed  in  Chapter  6,  sug- 
gests that  the  evolutionary  origins  of  laughter  arise  in  the  context  of  rough-and- 
tumble  social  play.  Developmental  psychologists  studying  humor  have  also  noted  that 
laughter  and  humor  develop  in  human  children  in  the  context  of  play  (see  Figure  6), 
and  many  view  humor  as  a  particular  form  of  mental  play  (Barnett,  1990,  1991; 
Bergen,  1998b,  2002,  2003;  McGhee,  1979). 

What  exactly  is  play?  Although  there  is  little  agreement  among  play  researchers 
and  theorists  about  how  to  define  this  nebulous  concept,  most  would  agree  that  it  is 
an  enjoyable,  spontaneous  activity  that  is  carried  out  for  its  own  sake  with  no  obvious 
immediate  biological  purpose  (Berlyne,  1969).  Michael  Apter  (1982)  suggested  that 
play  is  best  viewed  as  a  state  of  mind  rather  than  a  characteristic  of  certain  types  of 
activities.  Thus,  one  can  engage  in  almost  any  activity  in  a  playful  way,  as  long  as  one 
has  a  nonserious,  activity-oriented  (rather  than  goal-oriented)  mental  set. 

There  are  many  similarities  between  humor  and  play  (Bergen,  2002).  Laughter 
and  play  both  emerge  at  a  similar  age  in  infants  (around  four  to  six  months),  and  both 
are  facilitated  by  similar  social  contexts.  Humor  and  play  are  both  enjoyable,  and  they 
share  similar  characteristics  regarding  motivation,  control,  and  reality.  They  both 
involve  an  "as  if"  attitude,  they  are  enjoyed  for  their  own  sake  without  having  an 
obvious  serious  purpose,  and  they  both  occur  in  safe  settings  with  people  who  are 
trusted.  They  also  both  seem  to  involve  consolidation  and  mastery  of  newly  acquired 
skills  and  concepts.  Moreover,  children  are  socialized  into  play  and  humor  by  their 
caregivers  in  similar  ways  and  in  similar  contexts.  Just  as  parents  initiate  their  infant 
children  into  the  "play  frame,"  teaching  them  to  recognize  the  verbalizations  and 
behaviors  that  signal  "this  is  play,"  parents  also  teach  their  children  the  meaning  of 



FIGURE  6  Humor  develops  during  childhood  in  the  context  of  social  play.  ©  SW 
Productions/Getty  Images/Brand  X  Pictures 

the  "humor  frame"  by  means  of  facial  expressions,  behavioral  and  vocal  exaggerations, 
and  verbal  labels  indicating  "this  is  funny." 

Doris  Bergen  (1998a),  a  developmental  psychologist  at  Miami  University  in  Ohio, 
asked  parents  of  children  from  ages  one  to  seven  to  keep  a  record  of  the  events  that 
the  children  themselves  perceived  to  be  funny.  Most  of  the  reported  examples  of  chil- 
dren's humor  took  place  in  the  context  of  play  and  involved  playful  manipulations  of 
language  and  actions.  Common  examples  included:  expressed  joy  in  mastery  and 
movement  play  (e.g.,  tickling  games,  chasing),  clowning  (e.g.,  exaggerated  facial  or 
bodily  movements  or  voices),  performing  incongruous  actions  (e.g.,  rolling  up  a  red 
placemat  and  pretending  to  eat  it  as  a  "Fruit  Roll"),  and  playing  with  sounds  and  word 
meanings  (e.g.,  chanting  or  singing  nonsense  words). 

The  close  connection  between  humor  and  play  is  also  reflected  in  research 
showing  that  children  with  a  greater  sense  of  humor  tend  to  engage  in  more  play  in 
general.  Lynn  Barnett  (1990)  developed  a  measure  for  assessing  children's  playfulness 
in  which  sense  of  humor  is  included  as  one  of  the  subscales.  The  sense  of  humor  scale 


includes  items  relating  to  the  frequency  of  joking,  playful  teasing,  telling  funny  stories, 
and  laughing  with  other  children.  In  addition  to  humor,  the  measure,  which  was 
designed  to  be  used  by  adult  observers  to  rate  children's  playfulness,  also  includes 
scales  for  physical,  social,  and  cognitive  spontaneity  and  manifest  joy.  Research  with 
this  measure  has  shown  that  the  sense  of  humor  scale  is  significantly  correlated  with 
a  number  of  other  measures  of  general  playfulness  in  children,  lending  further  support 
to  the  close  link  between  humor  and  play  (Barnett,  1991).  Similarly,  a  study  of  humor 
in  nursery  school  children  by  Paul  McGhee  and  Sally  Lloyd  (1982)  showed  that  the 
strongest  predictor  of  children's  verbal  and  behavioral  humor  initiation  and  laughter 
responsiveness  was  the  frequency  with  which  they  engaged  in  social  play. 

Although  humor  and  play  are  closely  related,  they  are  not  exactly  the  same  thing. 
A  small  child  dressing  up  in  her  mother's  fancy  dress  and  high-heeled  shoes  and 
putting  on  lipstick  may  be  engaging  in  enjoyable  make-believe  play,  but  she  does  not 
necessarily  find  it  to  be  humorous  or  "funny."  However,  if  she  puts  the  dress  on  back- 
wards, wears  the  shoes  on  her  hands,  or  gives  herself  a  clown  face  with  the  lipstick, 
she  might  perceive  this  to  be  humorous  and  expect  other  people  to  laugh  at  it  as  well. 
Thus,  humor  involves  a  greater  degree  of  incongruity,  bizarreness,  exaggeration,  or 
discrepancy  from  the  way  things  normally  are,  along  with  a  playful  attitude. 

At  what  point  in  a  child's  development  can  we  say  that  humor  first  diverges  from 
other  forms  of  play?  When  we  see  a  six-month-old  infant  laughing  in  response  to  the 
peek-a-boo  game,  it  is  tempting  to  assume  that  he  or  she  is  experiencing  humor; 
however,  according  to  some  researchers,  this  is  not  necessarily  the  case.  Laughter  in 
infants  and  young  children  might  be  used  to  communicate  a  variety  of  positive  emo- 
tions, and  not  just  humor.  When  then  do  children  begin  to  laugh  at  things  that  are 
"funny"  and  not  just  "fun"?  This  has  been  a  topic  of  some  controversy  among  devel- 
opmental psychologists. 

According  to  Martha  Wolfenstein  (1954),  an  early  psychoanalytically-oriented 
researcher  of  humor  in  children,  humor  does  not  emerge  until  sometime  in  the  second 
year  of  life,  when  make-believe  play  becomes  differentiated  into  two  strands,  which 
she  called  "serious"  make-believe  and  "joking"  make-believe.  In  both  kinds  of  make- 
believe,  the  child  pretends  that  something  is  real,  but  knows  that  it  is  not.  In  serious 
make-believe,  the  focus  is  on  the  pretense  or  illusion  of  reality,  whereas  in  joking 
make-believe  the  emphasis  is  on  the  recognition  of  unreality.  Thus,  a  child  engaging 
in  serious  make-believe  play  may  become  engrossed  in  taking  on  a  role,  pretending 
to  be  a  "mommy"  or  a  "truck  driver,"  and  carrying  out  activities  that  closely  resem- 
ble those  of  a  real  mother  or  truck  driver.  In  humor,  however,  the  child  will  inten- 
tionally distort  reality,  behaving  in  unusual  or  exaggerated  ways  with  the  intention  of 
causing  someone  to  laugh. 

Paul  McGhee  (1979),  a  prominent  early  developmental  humor  researcher,  also 
saw  a  close  link  between  humor  and  make-believe  play.  His  theory  of  humor  devel- 
opment was  strongly  influenced  by  the  more  general  theory  of  cognitive  development 
formulated  by  the  well-known  Swiss  psychologist  Jean  Piaget  (1970).  Similarly  to 
Wolfenstein,  McGhee  argued  that  genuine  humor  does  not  begin  until  the  middle  of 
the  second  year  of  life,  when  children  begin  to  develop  the  capacity  for  fantasy,  pre- 

HUMOR    AND     PLAY  237 

tense,  or  make-believe  play.  This  corresponds  to  the  transition  from  the  sensorimo- 
tor  stage  to  the  preoperational  stage  in  Piaget's  theory.  At  this  stage,  children  begin 
to  represent  schemas  internally  instead  of  relying  on  direct  manipulation  of  objects 
to  gain  knowledge  of  the  world  (the  concept  of  cognitive  schemas  was  discussed  in 
Chapter  4). 

The  most  significant  achievement  at  this  age  is  the  ability  to  use  symbols  and 
signs,  including  words,  to  represent  other  objects.  According  to  Piagetian  theory, 
when  a  child  perceives  information  that  does  not  fit  with  his  or  her  existing  schema 
about  a  particular  object  or  event,  he  or  she  experiences  incongruity.  To  make 
sense  of  this  incongruous  information,  the  child  normally  either  reinterprets  the  per- 
ceived information  to  make  it  fit  with  the  existing  schema  (assimilation,  in  Piaget's 
terms),  or  modifies  the  schema  so  that  it  can  incorporate  the  new  information  (accom- 
modation). In  this  way,  the  incongruity  is  eliminated  and  the  child's  intelligence  is 

According  to  McGhee  (1979),  these  processes  for  making  sense  of  events  can 
occur  in  two  ways:  either  through  "reality  assimilation,"  which  is  more  serious  and 
reality-based,  or  "fantasy  assimilation,"  which  is  more  playful  and  makes  use  of  pre- 
tense and  make-believe.  In  the  latter  type  of  assimilation,  which  is  the  essence  of 
humor,  the  child  responds  to  incongruity  by  playfully  applying  the  wrong  schemas  to 
objects,  treating  one  object  as  if  it  were  another  one.  In  this  way,  children  can  create 
experiences  in  their  fantasy  world  that  they  know  cannot  take  place  in  reality.  Thus, 
in  McGhee's  view,  humor  essentially  involves  the  perception  of  an  incongruity  along 
with  fantasy  assimilation. 

For  example,  a  child  might  pretend  to  comb  her  hair  with  a  pencil,  thus  stretch- 
ing the  pencil  schema  to  make  it  incorporate  characteristics  of  a  comb.  The  schema 
is  not  permanently  altered  in  fantasy  assimilation,  as  it  is  in  reality  assimilation,  but 
is  temporarily  applied  incorrectly.  Based  on  developmental  research  by  Piaget  and 
others,  McGhee  argued  that  children  are  not  capable  of  this  sort  of  fantasy  assimila- 
tion until  they  acquire  the  capacity  for  symbolic  play  at  around  1 8  months  of  age.  In 
McGhee's  view,  then,  the  six-month-old  infant  who  laughs  in  response  to  the  peek- 
a-boo  game  is  not  really  experiencing  humor,  even  though  he  or  she  may  perceive  the 
situation  to  be  incongruous  and  obviously  enjoys  it. 

In  contrast  to  both  Wolfenstein  and  McGhee,  developmental  psychologists  Diana 
Pien  and  Mary  Rothbart  (1980)  argued  that  symbolic  play  capacities  and  fantasy 
assimilation  are  not  necessary  for  the  appreciation  of  humor.  Instead,  they  proposed 
that  humor  requires  only  the  recognition  of  incongruity  along  with  a  playful  inter- 
pretation of  that  incongruity,  and  they  argued  that  both  these  abilities  are  present  by 
the  time  infants  first  exhibit  laughter,  around  the  fourth  month.  Although  infants  at 
this  age  do  not  have  internalized  mental  schemas,  they  do  develop  sensory  and  motor 
schemas  based  on  their  interactions  with  the  physical  world,  and  they  are  able  to  rec- 
ognize events  that  are  incongruous  with  respect  to  these  developing  schemas.  In 
support  of  their  view,  they  cited  the  research  by  Sroufe  and  Wunsch  (1972)  described 
earlier,  which  indicated  that  infants  laugh  in  response  to  visual  and  social  events  that 
involve  discrepancy  from  familiar  sensorimotor  schemas. 


Although  Pien  and  Rothbart  agreed  with  McGhee  (and  Piaget)  that  make-believe 
play  does  not  begin  until  the  preoperational  stage,  they  pointed  out  that  by  four 
months  of  age  infants  are  capable  of  simple  forms  of  playful  behavior  involving  prac- 
tice, exploratory,  and  manipulative  play  with  objects;  motor  play;  and  social  play  (see 
also  Garner,  1998).  Following  Piaget,  they  defined  play  as  actions  that  are  carried  out 
for  the  pleasure  of  the  activity  alone,  involving  assimilation  with  little  or  no  serious 
attempt  to  accommodate  existing  schemas  to  fit  a  stimulus.  They  argued  that  this 
ability  to  respond  playfully  is  all  that  is  necessary  for  incongruity  to  be  perceived  as 
humorous.  To  respond  to  incongruity  in  a  playful  way,  the  infant  merely  needs  to  be 
in  a  safe,  nonthreatening  environment.  In  Pien  and  Rothbart's  view,  then,  a  six-month- 
old  infant  laughing  at  the  peek-a-boo  game  is  actually  experiencing  humor. 

The  question  of  when  humor  first  occurs  in  infants  may  be  impossible  to  resolve, 
since  it  depends  in  part  on  how  one  defines  humor.  Perhaps  the  most  we  can  say  is 
that  humor  originates  in  play  and  gradually  becomes  differentiated  from  other  forms 
of  play  as  the  child's  cognitive  abilities  develop  (Bergen,  2003).  Most  researchers 
today  seem  to  avoid  the  question  of  when  humor  begins  in  children,  focusing  on  overt 
behaviors  like  smiling  and  laughter  and  avoiding  making  inferences  about  subjective 
cognitive  experiences  such  as  humor.  Nonetheless,  most  would  agree  that  by  the 
end  of  their  second  year,  children  are  able  to  distinguish  between  humor  and  other 
forms  of  play.  This  also  becomes  more  evident  as  children's  developing  language  skills 
enable  them  to  describe  certain  events  as  "funny"  or  "silly,"  in  addition  to  laughing 
at  them. 


As  we  have  seen  in  this  and  earlier  chapters,  most  researchers  and  theorists  view 
incongruity  as  an  essential  component  of  humor.  Incongruity  may  be  viewed  as  a  devi- 
ation or  discrepancy  from  one's  normal  expectations.  As  discussed  in  Chapter  4,  these 
expectations  are  based  on  one's  cognitive  schemas,  the  mental  representations  stored 
in  memory.  Children,  as  well  as  adults,  tend  to  laugh  at  objects  or  events  that  do  not 
conform  to  their  existing  schemas.  Since  schemas  gradually  develop  throughout  child- 
hood as  the  individual  gains  experience  and  familiarity  with  the  world,  the  kinds  of 
objects  and  events  that  are  perceived  to  be  incongruous  with  respect  to  these 
schemas — and  therefore  humorous — also  change  over  time.  Things  that  seem  incon- 
gruous and  funny  at  an  early  age  become  mundane  and  less  humorous  at  a  later  stage 
of  cognitive  development,  whereas  the  older  child's  more  sophisticated  schemas  enable 
him  or  her  to  perceive  and  enjoy  new  kinds  of  incongruity  and  more  complex  forms 
of  humor  that  are  not  comprehensible  to  the  younger  child.  Thus,  the  development 
of  a  sense  of  humor  in  children  parallels  their  overall  cognitive  development.  The 
effects  of  cognitive  development  on  humor  comprehension  and  appreciation  have 
been  the  focus  of  a  great  deal  of  theoretical  work  and  empirical  research  since  the 
early  1970s. 


McGhee's  Four-Stage  Model  of  Humor  Development 

Based  on  a  variety  of  research  findings,  Paul  McGhee  (1979),  then  at  Texas  Tech 
University,  proposed  four  stages  of  humor  development  in  children  that  correspond 
to  general  trends  in  cognitive  development.  As  we  saw  earlier,  McGhee  argued  that 
the  appreciation  of  humor  does  not  begin  until  the  middle  of  the  second  year  of  life, 
when  children  progress  into  the  preoperational  stage  of  cognitive  development  and 
acquire  the  capacity  for  make-believe  or  fantasy  play.  The  first  stage  of  humor  devel- 
opment, which  McGhee  named  incongruous  actions  toward  objects,  therefore  begins  at 
this  age.  According  to  McGhee,  children  at  this  age  are  able  to  represent  objects  with 
internal  mental  schemas,  and  their  humor  consists  of  playfully  assimilating  objects 
into  schemas  to  which  they  do  not  normally  belong. 

For  example,  a  child  might  hold  a  leaf  to  her  ear  and  begin  talking  to  it  as  if  it 
were  a  telephone.  The  child's  recognition  of  the  inappropriateness  of  the  action  is  an 
important  component  of  the  humor:  if  the  child  simply  misapplies  a  schema  without 
recognizing  the  error,  this  may  provoke  laughter  in  adult  observers  but  not  in  the 
child.  Indeed,  one  way  children  often  learn  to  behave  in  humorous  ways  is  when  their 
inadvertent  cognitive  errors  unintentionally  produce  laughter  in  their  parents  and 
others.  Once  they  discover  that  such  incongruous  actions  can  cause  people  to  laugh, 
they  begin  to  intentionally  engage  in  such  behavior  to  evoke  laughter  in  others 
(Bariaud,  1988). 

McGhee's  second  stage  of  humor  development,  called  incongruous  labeling  of  objects 
and  events,  begins  early  in  the  third  year,  when  the  child  is  able  to  begin  using  lan- 
guage in  playful  ways.  At  this  stage,  the  humorous  use  of  language  involves  mislabel- 
ing  objects  or  events.  For  example,  children  at  this  age  may  derive  a  great  deal  of 
amusement  from  calling  a  dog  a  cat,  a  hand  a  foot,  an  eye  a  nose,  and  so  on.  The 
child  must  understand  the  correct  meaning  of  the  word  and  must  be  aware  that  he  or 
she  is  applying  it  incorrectly  for  it  to  be  perceived  as  humorous.  Thus,  the  child's 
mastery  of  the  correct  usage  of  the  word  seems  to  be  the  critical  factor  in  determin- 
ing when  it  will  be  misapplied  in  a  playful  manner  to  create  humor. 

The  third  humor  stage,  called  conceptual  incongruity,  begins  around  three  years  of 
age  when,  according  to  Piaget,  the  child  begins  to  realize  that  words  refer  to  classes 
of  objects  or  events  that  have  certain  key  defining  characteristics.  Humor  in  this  stage 
involves  the  violation  of  one  or  more  attributes  of  a  concept  rather  than  simply  mis- 
labeling  it.  For  example,  instead  of  simply  finding  it  fanny  to  call  a  cat  a  dog,  a  child 
at  this  stage  might  find  humor  in  imagining  or  seeing  a  picture  of  a  cat  with  more 
than  one  head  that  says  "moo"  instead  of  "meow." 

More  recently,  however,  Johnson  and  Mervis  (1997)  questioned  the  cognitive 
basis  of  the  transition  from  stage  two  to  stage  three.  They  pointed  out  that  the  Piaget- 
ian  idea  of  a  transition  from  "preconcepts"  to  "true  concepts"  at  this  age  has  not  held 
up  well  in  the  research  on  children's  early  conceptual  development.  Instead,  infants' 
prelinguistic  categories  have  been  shown  to  be  based  on  the  same  principles  as  the 
categories  of  adults.  These  authors  suggested  that  the  transition  from  stage  two  to 


stage  three  in  McGhee's  model  may  simply  reflect  a  change  in  what  children  tend  to 
talk  about.  Children  first  learn  names  for  objects,  allowing  them  to  create  stage-two 
humor  involving  mislabeling  of  objects.  Later,  they  begin  learning  words  for  the 
attributes  of  objects,  leading  to  the  enjoyment  of  stage-three  humor  involving  incon- 
gruous attributes. 

During  this  time,  children  also  develop  more  complex  syntactic  abilities,  enabling 
them  to  engage  in  various  types  of  language  play,  including  repetitious  rhyming  of 
words  and  the  creation  of  nonsense  words  (e.g.,  "ringo,  dingo,  bingo").  Children  at 
this  age  also  begin  to  enjoy  simple  riddles,  although  those  they  typically  tell  may  be 
best  described  as  "preriddles,"  since  they  follow  the  structure  of  riddles  without 
involving  the  play  on  words  or  concepts  found  in  the  true  riddles  enjoyed  at  a  later 
stage  (Yalisove,  1978). 

McGhee's  fourth  and  final  stage  of  humor  development,  called  multiple  meanings, 
begins  around  seven  years  of  age,  when  children  progress  from  the  preoperational  to 
the  concrete  operations  stage  in  Piaget's  theory  of  cognitive  development  (Piaget, 
1970).  Children  in  the  concrete  operations  stage  are  able  to  manipulate  schemas  in 
their  minds,  imagining  the  effects  of  various  actions  on  objects  (i.e.,  "operations") 
without  having  to  carry  them  out  behaviorally.  They  are  also  able  to  understand  con- 
servation, recognizing  that  physical  matter  does  not  magically  appear  or  disappear 
despite  changes  in  form.  In  addition,  they  are  able  to  carry  out  reversibility  of  think- 
ing, or  the  recognition  that  operations  can  be  reversed  so  that  their  effects  are  nulli- 
fied. Children  at  this  stage  also  become  less  egocentric,  and  begin  to  be  able  to 
recognize  that  other  people's  perspectives  may  be  different  from  their  own.  All  of 
these  cognitive  abilities  contribute  to  their  ability  to  appreciate  more  sophisticated 
kinds  of  humor  that  play  with  reality  in  more  complex  ways. 

With  regard  to  linguistic  abilities,  children  at  this  stage  begin  to  recognize  the 
ambiguity  inherent  in  language  at  various  levels,  including  phonology,  morphology, 
semantics,  and  syntax  (Shultz  and  Pilon,  1973;  Shultz  and  Robillard,  1980).  They  are 
therefore  able  to  enjoy  the  play  on  words  and  double  meanings  that  are  an  important 
component  of  many  jokes  and  riddles  (Whitt  and  Prentice,  1977;  Yalisove,  1978).  For 
example,  children  at  this  age  would  be  able  to  understand  the  double  meaning 
involved  in  the  following  riddle  (McGhee,  1979,  p.  77): 

"Why  did  the  old  man  tiptoe  past  the  medicine  cabinet?" 
"Because  he  didn't  want  to  wake  up  the  sleeping  pills." 

In  addition  to  understanding  puns  and  other  jokes  based  on  double  meanings  and 
language  play,  children  at  this  age  are  able  to  understand  other  kinds  of  abstract  humor 
based  on  logical  inconsistencies  and  requiring  inferential  thinking.  Several  studies  by 
McGhee  (197 la,  1971b)  showed  that  preoperational  children  had  difficulty  under- 
standing the  meaning  of  various  jokes  and  cartoons  containing  abstract  incongrui- 
ties, whereas  those  who  had  achieved  concrete  operations  demonstrated  better 

McGhee  (1979)  viewed  stage  four  humor  as  the  final  stage  in  humor  develop- 
ment, noting  that  this  type  of  humor  continues  to  be  enjoyed  into  adolescence  and 


adulthood.  However,  we  might  speculate  that  some  further  development  takes  place 
with  the  onset  of  Piaget's  formal  operations  stage  beginning  in  early  adolescence 
(Piaget,  1970).  In  this  stage,  the  individual's  thinking  becomes  more  abstract  and  is 
governed  more  by  logical  principles  than  by  perceptions  and  experiences.  Individuals 
at  this  age  have  a  more  flexible,  critical,  and  abstract  view  of  the  world.  They  are  able 
to  mentally  manipulate  more  than  two  categories  of  variables  at  the  same  time,  to 
detect  logical  inconsistencies  in  a  set  of  statements,  to  hypothesize  logical  sequences 
of  actions,  and  to  anticipate  future  consequences  of  actions.  All  of  these  cognitive 
capacities  no  doubt  enable  the  individual  to  play  with  ideas  and  concepts  at  a  more 
abstract  level  than  is  possible  in  the  concrete  operations  stage  (Fiihr,  2001).